When I leave on one of my trips into Africa I am always greeted with “enjoy deep dark Africa” and upon my return the most common statement: “Welcome back to civilisation” In my last short trip into Zimbabwe I was therefore not surprised when I got the regular: “enjoy the wild west mate,and we will have a beer when you are back in civilisation, don’t get lock up mate”. What happened over the next couple of hours was enough to astound me andto make me realise that South Africans are very far removed from their neighbours.
Upon my arrival at the check in counter of SAA, Africa’s No.1 airline, the very airline renowned for bringing Africa to the world and evena couple of ounces of “baby powder” to London. I am greeted by a well-dressed young lady that feels it is prudent to first have a “little” spit to the left. Canwe really blame her, we all hate those plastic “thingie majiengies” that always find a way to creep into our mouths. This was then followed by an ever so eloquent grunt or three and the most dismal attempt at a smile. It looked more like she was experiencing Braxton hick’s contractions. After about 5 minutes of grunts,moans and eye rolling I was pleasantly surprised when I received my boarding pass and off my bag went, to hopefully be seen in similar state again. Wow, an Arated experience! One has a deep urge to run through the airport shouting: “SAA, Africa’s No.1 Airline! We love you, can we give you more tax money”
The flight was pleasant enough; no beers, no wine and a new one cool drink allowance that really should be saved as supporting substance for the lovely bread roll. That said, not too long and the Pilot announces that we are arriving in a rainy Harare. Harare, the mere mention of the name conjures up images of a solid vibrant democracy, total and utter human rights respect,free and fair elections and open hard hitting political debate. Disembarking from the plane we are greeted by everyone from the guy changings the tires to the lollipop waiver. But now one goes to the immigration officer and Africa is renowned for their carton box style immigration officers.
As I arrive at the queue, slowly moving forward, I see a nolder gentleman in his government uniform approaching a vacant immigration bench, he spends about two minutes glaring across the room like an upset magistrate, fiddles with his office supplies, looks up and without warning barks:“Next!” Then it dawns on me, I am next, why me? As I approach his desk, Mr. Officer uses this time to stare at me emotionless over the golden frame of his glasses. A sudden realisation hits me, in over 150 flights into some of the most obscure African countries I haven’t felt like this little pimple faced school kid in ages. Arrival at desk, here I am time to focus, generate a charming smile and greet this staunch looking man with all the friendly confidence I have. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what happened next.
As I hand over my passport his face explodes into the biggest smile I have ever seen on a human being. His eyes light up like a strobe light in a 90’s disco and his voice was as jovial and welcoming as a TV evangelist on a Sunday. He continued to enthusiastically welcome me to Zimbabwe, gave me a firm instruction to return for a longer period and guaranteed that I would enjoy my time in his country and off course thanked for bringing some rain from South Africa.
My travel partner must have seen the surprise on my face as I continued to wonder the corridors of friendly faces and polite people in awe. This was in no way the first time that I felt more welcome in another African country than my own, but the whole experience just really emphasised that we as South African’s can learn a lot from our friendly neighbours and how massive a role one person can play in the experience taken from a country.
During my two very busy days in Harare everywhere I went there were people eager and keen to help, willing, able and friendly staff, and most importantly a big genuine smile for you the customer that chose their establishment to do business with. The lack of state of the art equipment is easily cancelled out by a true passion for what they do and a real willingness to assist you. Nothing in this post however promises quick restaurant service.
In conclusion I think we must make it a prerequisite for all customer facing staff in SA to first do a three month internship with a private company in an African country. I also think we should seriously invest sometime in asking our customer facing staff to really try their best to conjure up a genuine looking smile, refrain from spitting on approaching customers and when possible not to make noises and grunts that sounds like bad bowel movements. As South Africans we have come to terms with the fact that you do not want to serve us but at least try and hide the pain and suffering of customer service to the best of your abilities.