What does it mean to be South African?

How do you know that somebody is a true South African?

I was facilitating a brand strategy workshop with a client the other day; one of the areas of focus that we selected to delve into was an exploration into what it means to be South African.

Not just a person who so happens to have been born and raised at the southern end of the African continent, but rather somebody who has 'a South African mindset', a South African way of being regardless of where they may have originated from geographically.

More importantly - we tasked ourselves to identified positive South African character attributes that give South Africans an advantage in the world, personality traits that set South African apart from non-South Africans.

The challenge, we quickly discovered, in this exercise - it to raise the level of thinking above the noise of the present.

It's obviously easy to be sucked into the relentless negative granularity of current headlines; what we were interested in instead are the larger sweeping patterns of behaviour that show evidence as what the level of collective consciousness of South Africans is.

As a culture, South Africans certainly lean towards consistently displaying these five strengths more so than any other:

  1. Courage - more than any other strength, South African are well-known for their ability to overcome 'poor odds' and pull success out of the most dismal of situations. Even when everything seems to be going against them, a South African will dig out a sliver of hope from somewhere and will have the bravery and tenacity to keep at the project until success is achieved.
  2. Action-orientated - South Africans are well-known for their preference to roll-up-their-sleeves and get on with fixing an issue. Talking and planning is kept to a minimum, what's of far more worth is action. If in doubt, build something...and see what you can learn from the experience of at least giving it a go.
  3. Resourcefulness - the old saying ''n boer maak 'n plan' (a farmer makes a plan) implies that a true South African has the capability to build a spaceship out of plastic tubing and duct tape. Rather than finding excuses as to why not, a South African works with what is available to make miracles happen.
  4. Collaboration - no other nation has more words and mechanisms for collaboration than South Africans. Be it a 'bosberaad', an 'indaba', a 'kgotla' - all of these colloquial terms effectively refer to 'gatherings of people with the intention of reaching an agreement as to how to move forward.' Historically South Africans are world champions at finding a path towards a better future despite our diversity of backgrounds and points of view.
  5. Humour - funny stories, banter as well as dance, song and music is how South Africans make sense of what, at times, may seem like utter madness. It's an effective coping mechanism that reminds us of our humanity and facilitates relationship building across cultures. You realise how much we rely on humour in particular here in South Africa when you visit places on Europe and Asia, where there is frankly far less use of it. No matter where you go in the world, the guy that's making the corny jokes in the long queue is nine times out of ten going to be from South Africa.

As a nation South Africans probably don't recognise and celebrate their cultural strengths as often as they should, but these are the traits and behaviours that make South Africans the amazing people that they are.

Rather than ignoring them, or trying to adopt an approach from someplace else that seems to be somehow better, we should have more confidence in ourselves and what makes us unique. Time and time again these traits have however proven themselves to be highly-effective when fully-embraced and used to create futures.

To be South African is to be hopeful of a better tomorrow and to believe that its creation is somehow possible, no matter how improbable that might seem in the given moment.

These days this a cultural quality you'd want to develop even more of.