Excuse me, you said what!?

Back in 2007 I worked for a Call Centre, based in Cape Town, selling BT (British Telecoms) products to UK citizens, while the head office was in High Wycombe. I was fortunate enough to have a sales guru, larger than life (in more ways than one), as sales manager. I’m not sure whether he will want to named, so for the sake of this port, we will call him John.

Whenever John walked into the room, everyone paid attention – his physique large enough to cast shadows; his booming voice enough to make anyone jump. The term “work hard and play hard”, was invented with John in mind. He is the only person I have ever seen who can drink an entire beer in three gulps! There was not a single person who would dare to ignore John. If you did well he would make you feel like a king. If you screwed up, however, you would know about it. I learned a great deal for this man, not only about sales, but also about life and our approach to fellow human beings.

Unfortunately the World Economic Crisis kicked in and they decided to close the branch in SA. Let me tell you one thing though, if given the opportunity to work for him again, I would do it in a heartbeat! I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and will forever be grateful for what he taught me.

One of his pet-peeves was the word “Basically” (sorry John, I shudder to just type it), which is also the word I would like to ban from the English dictionary, if given the power. John taught us that using the B-word is an insult to the other person’s intelligence. In using the word, you are diminishing their thinking capacity and implying that they are just too stupid to understand.

Working in a call centre environment with a lot of people who have to interact with clients for the entire day, how would he then get us to stop using the word? Simple! Every time someone used the word, you would be summoned and, with a white board marker, he would write the letter B on your face. You would have to walk around with that mark on your face the entire day. Say it again, and you would get another B, and so it went. Thank you to Luke who grudgingly volunteered to let me use him as an example! I remember one day when one chap ended up with something like 13 B’s on his face. By the end of the day he was so furious, the color of his face matched the red of the marker. He never used the word again after that day.

To this day, I read and re-read my posts to check that I have not included the word by accident. When someone uses it in conversation with me, I remember John and I see red. I quite literally want to run for the nearest marker!

On being hugged by a black guy

South Africa, the country of my birth. The only country, in fact, I have ever known. I have always been proudly South African; I love this place, truly, deeply and passionately. Sure it has it’s problems, but then again, as does all countries, hey?

Our land is filled with a multitude of races, religions, cultures and languages. We don’t have only “Africans” and “Caucasians”. We have Blacks, Whites and Colored natives. We also have Indians, Asians, and many more – we embrace them all. It is the multitude of languages (we have 11 National Languages), however that reduced me to tears this afternoon. Language and shame left me standing there at the side of the road next to a taxi with a young black chap embracing me.

Let me start at the beginning.

When I got to the taxi rank this afternoon, this young black guy, about 25 years old, was obviously upset and very animated in the way he expressed himself. This young man was the guard of one of the taxis. In case you don’t know, the taxis operate with a driver and a guard. The guard’s job is to collect fares and direct the driver to where he needs to stop. None of the taxis were prepared to drive out to the Bay for 4 passengers, as it already was too late. What upset him was the fact that they (the driver and him) were prepared to go, but they had to wait their turn. I was listening to him venting his frustration, in Afrikaans, at the rank master. After about 10 minutes of this (in which time 4 taxis had been loaded and left) the rank master caved and allowed them to jump the queue.

We loaded the taxi with a mix of passengers for different areas, the Bay being the last stop. En route I continually caught myself listening to the way he spoke Afrikaans. His pronunciation of words and grammar was exquisite, to say the least. He had this beautiful way to make the words roll of this tongue. I decided to compliment him on it when I got off. As the ride continued, he kept talking, and it got me thinking about the many languages of our country. I felt ashamed. How “proudly South African” am I if I can’t speak any of the other languages, other than my mother tongue (Afrikaans) or English? I have never attempted even to learn and traditionally African language. Does that not make me a hypocrite then?

My stop was the last on their route. I got out and this is how the conversation went (only it was in Afrikaans):

Me: Excuse me, I know you are in a hurry, but there is something I want to say to you.
Young Guard: Yes Ma’am?
M: I have always said that I am a proud South African, but today you made me hang my head in shame.
Confusion and shock washed over his face. I started to speak and could feel the emotion well up in my throat (I am very connected to emotion and it does not take much to drive me to tears)
YG: I don’t understand Ma’am
M: You speak Afrikaans with such love, so clearly, yet it is not your mother tongue. (At this point the tears started rolling). I claim to be proudly South African, yet I have never even tried to learn your language.

That is how language reduced me to tears, it left me standing at the side of the road next to a taxi. The next moment this you guy embraced me, softly patting me on the back. His parting words to me:

“Don’t worry Ma’am. I appreciate your kind words. We have a long way to go in this country yet. You will learn my language, of that I have no doubt. The fact that you can not speak my mother’s tongue does not make you any less my sister.”

South Africa, motherland, I love you and all God’s people.

Goodnight everyone.