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Articles - Lessons from Africa - SAA Inflight Magazine (Sawubona)

If you know how to interpret Africa's magic, African drumming and stories, the San or Bushman or even a pride of lions can teach you everything you need to know about business.

ELIZABETH BADENHORST attended 'bush school'.

South African motivational speakers who use their knowledge of Africa and its wildlife as inspiration for their presentations are transforming individuals and companies and making a difference both locally and abroad.

Quinton Coetzee

The first of these speakers I met was Quinton Coetzee who uses the San people as a metaphor for teaching business excellence. Looking like an ad for a stylish bush wear adapted to the city, this well-known TV personality who roasted scorpions for a toasty treat - 'more protein per gram than any meat' - waxes lyrical about bush survival techniques (a personal speciality), creepy crawlies, deserts and insect protein. Oh gosh, one of those mud-on-your-face-is-magic men. But I'm ready to be convinced...

Apparently, his wardrobe, accent, (South African English with an Afrikaans inflection) and lion scars - he's survived two maulings - go down really well with overseas audiences. I was more intrigued by the fact that he's a trained classical pianist. Imagine dinner over at his place: Bach and bugs. Mind you, anyone who has actually lived with an Indian tribe in the Amazon, hunted in the Namib and survived the sub-Antarctic as he has can come to dinner any time.

As incongruous a picture as Bushmen and business suggest, once Quinton starts explaining it all pretty much makes sense and one succumbs to the message that no matter how disparate our lifestyles, life's lessons have to be lived and learned and the rules are the same for everyone, fax or no fax.

'Whether you're a Bushman, a sportsman or a businessman, quest is the same - survival in a given environment. And the qualities required, like perseverance, adapting to change and pulling your weight in a team are the same anywhere,' he points out.

Invitations to speak in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Austria, USA and Thailand are proof enough that his message does indeed enjoy universal appeal, and he's endorsed by the likes of Jane Sheridan, the GM of Caltex Petroleum in Dallas, Texas who says, 'After hunting a giraffe for hours, the Bushman's arrow struck a tree branch and broke. He just laughed and started over. What a metaphor for those of us in the business world.'

Invitations to speak in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Austria, USA and Thailand are proof enough that his message does indeed enjoy universal appeal, and he's endorsed by the likes of Jane Sheridan, the GM of Caltex Petroleum in Dallas, Texas who says: 'After hunting a giraffe for hours, the Bushman's arrow struck a tree branch and broke. He just laughed and started over. What a metaphor for those of us in the business world.' One begins to understand why Quinton's presentations in the States are often accorded standing ovations.

He explains the gist of his message as follows: 'If we take a clan of San and see them as the company, the desert would be their marketplace and the animals their client base and source of survival.' The better they know their clients, the better their chances of survival. Their competition is any pride of lions or other predators looking to take their market share away and aiming to put them out of business. The women who bury water supplies for them along the way are their infrastructure and, if that isn't in place, their efficiency is severely hampered - as it would be if they didn't take proper care of their tools, well-maintained bows and arrows being the computers and cellphones of the bush.'

He chooses the Bushmen to illustrate the points he wishes to make because they capture the imagination and, thanks to the movies The Gods Must Be Crazy, audiences abroad know exactly who he's referring to and in what kind of environment they live. 'San solutions are an exercise in getting back to basics, re-acquainting ourselves with skills we have on a gut level but seem to have forgotten in our industrialised world. In the final analysis, it's a question of attitude, of how you deal with anything from a problem to a crisis to success.'

Ian Thomas

Ian Thomas, an economics graduate, chose to be a ranger at Londolozi, one of the country's most esteemed private game lodges. If anything teaches you about human nature then a stint as a ranger catering to the demands of the pampered is arguably the best school of them all. He survived eight years of it. Being in the bush for that length of time, day after day, conducting game drives morning and afternoon, he learned a lot.

Ian says: 'My presentations evolve out of the Londolozi experience. A fair percentage of the people I drove around were high-powered businessmen who would continue thrashing out their work problems in the middle of the bush. Sharing a vehicle with them, I couldn't help overhearing. Also, on rainy days when guests were confined to the lodge, I felt they should at least be given something to make up for the fact that they couldn't go out in to the bush. So I brought the bush to them, putting together slide presentations and talks on topics I gathered they'd be interested to hear more about.

'One of the things I picked up on is the fact that lions seem to capture everybody's imagination and attention. Men, in particular, identify with their strength, stature and charisma. Today, I use the analogy of a pride of a pride of lions hunting together for optimum success to illustrate the imperative need for healthy business practices and principles - like effective teamwork.'

I see his point about the lions. Using sparrows or dung beetles wouldn't quite cut it with captains of industry in their designer duds and leather loafers. The visuals can't compete with footage of quivering lioness moving in for the kill.

'A pertinent point I make in my presentation is that not every pride of lions can hunt buffalo kills require particular talents, intrepid teamwork and the confidence that it can be done. But it's definitely not a task to be tackled alone. In business terms, I explain the need for superbly trained and skilled individuals working together towards a common, challenging goal, much as the lionesses pool their strength to pull off a difficult attack.

'People don't always realise how invigorating a real challenge is. Hunting buffalo is an event. Swatting an impala less so. In business terms, if you've pulled off a major coup, there's something to talk about afterwards. Something to get the juices going and make the team members feel good about themselves. Uninspiring goals beget an indifferent reaction; a case of we didn't do much and we didn't accomplish much. But if you can fire up a team's collective imagination, focus all their energy and resources on a worthy goal and empower them with the necessary skills, training and vision to realise a worthy goal, then you're on to something.

'An issue I also emphasise is selection. It's absolutely crucial to have the right hunter in your pride if you're going after buffalo. A weak link, and disaster looms. Business is so different. A weak link must shape up or ship out. By the same token, like lions put their personal egos aside to come together for a hunting session, leadership is not dominance but managing to unite a team to work effectively towards a common goal.'

He concludes: 'Hanging on to my personal integrity while dealing with a team talk is sometimes a huge challenge because I have to be tough on my audience, saying what they need to hear as opposed to what they want to hear. Often, the very person quizzing me is the one who is the problem in the team - and that's where the lion analogy comes in handy. I can use the animals to explain an issue and that stops the individual(s) from becoming defensive.'

Derek Jooste

Derek Jooste's background is no less intriguing. A fine arts graduate, he's been a professional musician, a lighthouse keeper, a history teacher and the MD of a listed training company. Currently, he runs Teamwork Consulting and is an independent facilitator and corporate speaker, researching a book on the unique style of management that has emerged in progressive South African organisations. It is a style that embraces diversity as a strong resource in being globally competitive.

Derek points out that companies abroad on average spend five per cent of monies available on developing people, upgrading their skills and empowering them by keeping them abreast of modern business development and practices. In South Africa the average spending amounts to one per cent.

'It's easy to understand why a certain team is successful once they've achieved their goal,' he says, 'but creating that winning spirit is a far more mysterious matter because the interpersonal dynamics are invisible even though one can feel them working. I make it my business to integrate by using African guidelines.'

For example, black people teach by positive reinforcement only. A child mimics his elders when it comes to making music, singing or dancing. When he does something right, he receives some form of encouragement (a wink, a smile, affirmative eye contact), while mishaps are simply ignored. The learning experience is free of fear and a tool to building confidence as a child thrives on the acknowledgement of his progress.

It is thanks to this method that Japanese violin masters have achieved astonishing success with preschoolers who end up playing classical works at an age when most children still find running a challenge. As Derek says: 'They're motivated by love as opposed to fear and working from a positive rather than a negative produces much more satisfying results.' Which in business terms translates into the need for a manager to be an inspiration rather than a watchdog.

The African way also concentrates on teamwork, it is not a culture of 'me, my and I (Pty) Ltd'. Nobody is excluded from the group. For example, African music employs a scale that allows anyone to fall in and join the group while Western music is mathematically based and more individualistic. And, as everyone knows, doing something alone is a lot harder than doing it with the help of a group.

Derek sees himself as a facilitator who takes a group that needs to function together but isn't, unblocking their individual energies and creating a situation - often through music - that stimulates the successful merging of these diverse individuals into a team. His intervention is particularly sought after by sports bodies where a lack of teamwork equals disaster. 'A team often needs an objective assessment of their situation and that is the job of the facilitator who steps in to untangle the knots so a new scenario can develop.' I must say the mental picture of a bunch of rugger machos pounding their chests, smacking their cheeks and banging on drums sounded, well, unusual, but apparently the humour and the fun element involved go a long way towards diffusing tensions.

His bottom line? 'I want people to live the saying "If you're a street sweeper, then sweep like Beethoven composed music".'

Gcina Mhlope-Becker

Gcina Mhlophe-Becker is South Africa's foremost storyteller; she even calls it her mission. From her point of view stories are basically universal knowledge dipped in local culture. 'I found North American Indians who tell stories with similar messages to mine, only the animals they use are particular to their part of the world - like ravens.'

A celebrated actress, poet, writer, storyteller and radio, TV and stage personality, Gcina travels as a visiting lecturer to universities in the USA, Japan, England and in South Africa. In May 1994, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the London Open University in England.

Storytelling, she maintains, is the information technology of yesteryear; a source of history, entertainment and information, a tool to accomplishing things and getting a message across. 'Stories pass on wisdom gathered through the ages - truths that stand their ground, enrich our lives and give us guidance. We need stories because Umuntu ufunda aze afe - people learn until they die. And the wonderful thing about stories is that they teach in a manner that pleases the audience and is accessible to all.'

Gcina has no fear of the Eurocentric world of modern business and has been used by companies such as Telkom, World Bank, Eskom and Dion. 'I meet with the people, find out what their corporate culture is about and what it is they're trying to accomplish. Then I weave my story around that and if the inspiration comes to me, I write a song and incorporate that into my presentation.' Story messages can vary from teamwork and commitment to managing change and planning.

Her art form is a legacy from an imaginative grandmother in KwaZulu-Natal, who would light a candle, place herself so a huge shadow would form behind her on the wall, creating a feeling of other-worldliness, and proceed to take the young Gcina's imagination to wondrous places inhabited by magical creatures with great knowledge and cunning. Ordinary things - like tortoises - became special. So much so that today her house is full of tortoises made of wood, clay, way and ceramic. 'I love them for their determination, patience and strangeness. They've become my symbol, or logo in corporate terms,' she says.

'Granny really taught my imagination to fly. I used to teach flowers and tell them my stories, mainly because they'd stand still in one place and listen, never talked back and always waved in appreciation. Until, of course, one day, I imagined them less attentive than usual and proceeded to thrash the daylights out of them. Granny asked me how much I enjoyed hiding and when I said I didn't, she merely said that flowers were no different. The old "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" lesson taught through flower thrashing.'

She picks a huge, beautiful shell, puts it to her ear and starts talking to dolphins and moonlight . . . and we're off into another world. It becomes easy to understand why she mesmerises corporates in suits and people as culturally diverse as the British, Germans and the Japanese who call her back year after year.

Bushmen, lion, buffalo, African mbiras, drums and tortoises. What an amazing world one discovers with these speakers.

Quinton Coetzee, Ian Thomas, Derek Jooste and Gcina Mhlophe-Becker can be booked through Marie Grey & Associates which provides top speakers for conferences, seminars and special events.


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