In this blog series, we examine the differences in how people communicate across the globe.
Africa is a quickly evolving continent. It is so large, diverse, and complex, it is difficult to comprehend the sheer potential it has to become the globe’s next powerhouse. As the majority of the developed world is coping with challenges that come with aging demographics, Africans are faced with the opposite phenomenon: a ballooning youth population with growing purchasing power and cultural influence. Sub-Saharan Africa’s capita is growing at 2.7% a year; most experts agree that if it continues at its current growth rate, the continent’s population will double by 2050.
Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to achieve moderate growth of 2.7% in 2021, signifying a rebound from the region’s recession last year – its first in a quarter of a century, shrinking an estimated 3.7%. Export growth is expected to accelerate this year in line with renewed economic activity among major trading partners like the US and China. It is assumed that Foreign Direct Investment will increase as uncertainty eases. Additionally, many investors are attracted to the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) which is in its beginning stages of implementation.
For these reasons, I thought it was time to catch up with Babu Katanga, a Congolese/South African native who has lived in the Netherlands for 6.5 years. He has worked closely with the Dutch government and multiple African governments as a business consultant and analyst, connecting Dutch entrepreneurs with business partners in the agricultural and tech sectors.
What are the most distinct differences between the way (South) Africans and Europeans communicate?
According to Katanga, South Africans are generally extroverts and are open and talkative towards people they don’t know. They enjoy learning new things and making new acquaintances. Conversation is used to gain insight and discover something new. “People in South Africa are more inquisitive about your family and show genuine interest in aspects of your personal life – even if you may not know them very well. The concept of Ubuntu is ‘I am because you are, and therefore we are’ – it embodies the strength of community. Your wellbeing depends on your parents, your siblings. This personal touch is present even in business communication. It is important to create a good bond before engaging in business. For people to lay the foundation of trust, they need to engage with you on a personal level.” In business, small talk and relationship building is much more appreciated than pressure tactics.
In contrast, “Europeans communicate in a much more reserved way. People keep to themselves and expect others to respect their personal space. At least that is what I have seen having lived here in the Netherlands; I should acknowledge that most European countries differ in their personal and professional communication setting,” says Katanga. While being straightforward is not always appreciated in South Africa, it is the norm in the Netherlands.
He has observed that doing business in the Netherlands is tit-for-tat and is kept separate from other aspects of life. This is why the concept of maintaining a work/life balance remains dominant. Is this similar in South Africa? “Work life balance really depends on your social class standing: if you are highly educated and are a professional then the attitude about work/life balance will be similar to a person living in Europe. If you come from the other side of the spectrum, then life becomes something totally different. 49.2% of South Africans live in poverty.
In your experience working with both European and African entrepreneurs, how do you think this communication divide can impact collaboration?
“My experience has been somewhat exciting and at times frustrating. With modern technology so accessible in the developed world (Europe), I would hope that people were more aware of the strides in structural and economic development that the developing world (Africa) has made in the last 10 years,” says Katanga.
To his dismay, many Europeans continue to revisit old narratives about Africa. This can perpetuate the misconceived notion that the continent is homogeneous (for example: referring to Africa as a country) and even more damaging, engender patriarchal perspectives and condescending attitudes.
“Some Europeans still have the ‘saviour complex’ when engaging in investment opportunities with African entrepreneurs. This leads to many failing to achieve their objectives and can even lead to them being taken advantage of. The modern African entrepreneur is one that is looking for a partnership with a European counterpart; the individual is looking for an equal working relationship – not for charity,” says Katanga.
He urges Europeans not to forget the complex history of South Africa and its recent wounds of Apartheid. “There has been a huge since shift since 1994; prior to that businesses were run by white Europeans, but over the last two decades there have initiatives put in place to ensure that there is black management. Black businessmen and businesswomen think differently than their white counterparts and this should be taken into consideration.”
Europeans are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of Africa from a business and economic perspective. What is the best way to become more knowledgeable?
Read and tune in to reliable, objective news such as the Africa Report which publishes content sourced from a wide range of international wires as well as local African outlets.
What should Europeans absolutely not overlook?
- Europeans need to understand the history of South Africa and be aware of how the country has been affected by past laws of the Apartheid regime. Because of this, there is the Broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) government policy; it exists to advance economic transformation and enhance the economic participation of Black people (African, Coloured, Indian and Chinese people who are South African citizens) in the South African economy. “Those who are looking to make investments which will empower black women and black youth are especially favoured by the government,” explains Katanga.
2. Do not underestimate the consumer power that South Africans have, regardless of their disposable income. Modern television, internet and the media promote a lifestyle that many Africans dream of having, so many products from Europe or the US are appealing.
3. Katanga believes that there are huge opportunities to invest in tech, and that the video and online gaming sector in South Africa will quickly develop in the coming years; this is partially because the government is offering free education in coding such as WeThinkCode, which is priming a portion of the youth to make their mark in the sector.
What are some of the cultural aspects of South Africa that you miss the most now that you live in Europe?
Taking my time.
Speaking to random people on the streets; greeting a total stranger and receiving a warm smile back.
BBQ-ing also known as ‘braai’ing’ in South Africa.
Written by Elizabeth James Tingen