We need a change of culture

An anti-xenophobia demonstrator in front of the SA High Commission in Abuja. (File, AFP)
An anti-xenophobia demonstrator in front of the SA High Commission in Abuja. (File, AFP)

I ONCE got stuck in Jomo Kenyatta Airport for three interminable extra hours due to a delayed flight. In the deepest indigo of the wee hours, we were finally informed that we could board. I asked one of the staff what the delay had been about.

“The pilot got stuck in a three-hour traffic jam,” she replied.

Yup, that’s Nairobi traffic. Horrendous. But interestingly, while you inch through the logjams, your driver taking hair-raising chances to squeeze through invisible gaps, you will find remarkably few incidents of rage – no purple faces swearing at you, no middle fingers poked out of windows, few outbreaks of angry hooting.

In contrast, I was driving on a two-lane suburban road in Joburg recently. In the left lane ahead of me was a little red Golf puttering along, so I moved into the righthand lane to pass him. The beefy blonde driver caught my eye as I passed by. He went an ugly red and immediately accelerated, roaring past me and maintaining top speed till we came to a point where the road narrows to one lane.

Here he idled along, trying to prevent me from passing (not that I was trying to; I was amused by the fog of testosterone surrounding this young man, and had not reacted visibly at all); we eventually reached his destination, the drive-through lane of a MacDonald's, where I naturally drove by. As I did, he hung out of his window, shaking his fist and yelling obscenities.

What is wrong with us? Why are so many South Africans so quick to anger, so quick to abuse, swear, punch, pick up a panga, burn down a house? We are all victims of stress, I think, with, among many other things, the fear of violent crime affecting all of us (although the actual incidence and impact is worst among the poor).

Another factor, I believe, is our history, a history of institutionalised prejudice and brutality. When you’ve grown up in a country where the response to problems, from the highest authorities, from the police and politicians, is violence, it’s going to bleed into communities and into personal lives. Violence is our first-line solution to so much.

And as to the issue of xenophobia: apartheid, the system of separateness, was like a tertiary education in the fine art of ‘othering’; we and our parents and grandparents were schooled in it for decades, and today, we are very quick to ‘other’ – to think of people as different, rather than similar to us. Different and therefore not to be accorded the same respect, the same dignity, the same human rights as us. They speak Shona; they worship in a different way; they cheer for a different team; they are not US, they’re THEM; get ‘em!

But that doesn’t mean the anger, the violence, the othering, is destiny. It is a culture we’ve developed. And we can change our culture.

I recently saw a documentary (National Geographic) on stress, which featured Professor Joel Sapolsky talking about his beloved baboon troop, his subjects in the study of stress, whom he observed for years in the Serengeti.

Baboons show us how to do it

I’ve read his autobiography, Primate Memoir, in which he tells how the troop he’d known for decades succumbed to an epidemic of TB, which picked off huge numbers of baboon characters, one by one. Sapolsky thought that years of research had just died with them.

And then he saw something extraordinary. Many of the baboons who died were alpha males or their buds, baboons who spent their lives beating up contenders for the top spot, trying to topple the head honcho, being nasty to the females (sounds like many corporate offices, doesn’t it)… these guys had poor immune systems because they were under stress all the time, so the TB whacked them. And they were the dominant males, the ones who created the culture that governed the troop.

The troop was left with very few males, and they were the harmless old teddy bears who’d never tried for dominance, and a few young ‘uns. The unusual result was a troop dominated by females, and female behaviour. Over time, young males would transfer in from other troops, try a few dominance moves and find that this troop, unlike others, operated on female baboon principles: you groom each other, you look after each other’s babies, you support and befriend and share food.

These young males quickly realised that they’d have to operate along these lines if they were going to be accepted. The troop, says Sapolsky, is now a baboon anomaly. Fighting and screaming and swearing are out; being nurturing and friendly and quite gentle is in.

If the leadership of any group changes – or changes its ways – the culture can change remarkably quickly. What we desperately need right now is a change of culture at the top – and I don’t just mean government, I mean the way business operates, the behaviour of church leaders, singers, sports people and radio jocks. And bloggers and, for pity’s sake, the commenters online.

Because if we don’t, we’re going to eat ourselves alive. And nobody succeeds, nobody prospers, nobody can be really happy (no matter how much money they make) in a society like that.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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