Last night I was at a Blue, the Network event in Woodstock. A little background to the network; Blue, the Network is an initiative of the Democratic Alliance to bring together young professionals across various sectors to talk about innovations and ideas, which will lead into action in bringing about a new type of politics. For more information, you can visit the page here.
Among the guest speakers was the Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, who very succinctly outlined the vision to position Cape Town as a leading African City, creating opportunities for economic development, uplifting the conditions of the poor through various projects and delivering world class services to all its citizens.
In the Q&A session afterwards, a young lady put a question to her (in the form of a statement) addressing the difficulty black people face in Cape Town regarding being included in business circles, especially around the issue of language use in business. One of the speakers of the night, Mphumeleli Ndlangisa, founder of Magna Carta Wines, expressed the same frustration, noting that most business meetings in the Stellenbosch area are held in Afrikaans, a language which he struggles to communicate in. Especially in the business context. This, of course, is very much a valid and pressing issue if we are to effectively transform the economy so that everyone benefits from economic growth and job creation.
The answer, in my humble opinion is a very simple one; we should all respect each other’s language constraints, and go into any conversation with the goal of seeking first to understand (to borrow one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
In my professional career, I’ve worked for 3 different multi-national organisations, where English was not always the language of communication. In 2 of these organisations, Afrikaans was the language most often used. Now, I can understand Afrikaans very well, but I can’t always speak it well. So, when I can, I try to speak the language as best I can, and the moment I feel uncomfortable in doing so, I switch over to English. And here’s the thing; not once did anyone ask me to stay speaking in Afrikaans. And furthermore, when I didn’t understand a word or sentence, I asked that they either repeat it, or that it be translated into English, and again, not once was this request ignored.
One more example. Our office is in Cape Town, and one of my colleagues, Nokuthula, relocated from Gauteng. She has a very basic understanding of Afrikaans. So when there is a meeting with her present, the meeting is strictly held in English. In this way, everyone is included in the conversation.
In closing, one of the best ways that we can build our economy is inclusion of everyone through effective communication. Having 11 official languages makes it difficult for everyone, but if we seek first to understand each other, I believe we will be well on our way to foster an inclusive society, develop our economy, and build our beloved nation together.