A Wolf in a Lion’s Den: The experience of working in South Africa

Author: Robyn Keet


When one thinks of South Africa, the first images that generally come to mind are wildlife (think spotting the Big Five on a safari in the Kruger National Park in Gauteng Province or experiencing the penguins at Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town), diversity, perhaps the 2010 Soccer World Cup or the darker history relating to apartheid. However, modern South Africa is characterized by cosmopolitan cities, mesmerizing natural scenery, a rich and diverse culture, world-class cuisine, a deep appreciation for art in all forms and a strengthening, albeit complex, economy. In fact, South Africa is often aptly referred to as the Rainbow Nation, being a fusion of different ethnicities, cultures, languages, beliefs and backgrounds. Despite the vast and uncomfortable inequalities (South Africa has the unfortunate title of being the world’s most unequal society), the nation’s people are friendly, charismatic, entrepreneurial, adventurous and, generally, quite community-oriented.


In November 2021, BrightWolves undertook its first project in South Africa, encompassing a digital transformation project for a leading private healthcare provider. As a native South African, you can only imagine my excitement at this prospect – not only to see my family after almost two years apart or to soak up the delightful South African summer, but also to experience my first truly international project as a consultant. South Africa has a two-tiered healthcare system, with approximately 27% of the total population of 60 million people served by the private healthcare sector. The private sector, in particular, is characterized by world-class medicine, including da Vinci robotic-assisted surgery, medical device innovations and other notable medical technology advancements. Therefore, it was fascinating to see how undertaking a digital transformation project in the South African healthcare sector may not be all that different to a first-world country such as Belgium. While there are some obvious differences, which I will touch upon, the frameworks for approaching such a project – including Lean methodologies and stakeholder management – are largely universal.


So, how does the experience of working in South Africa (specifically, Cape Town) differ from that of Belgium?


Life outside of work

Perhaps it can be attributed to the warmer climate or the abundance of nature, but it is not unusual for Capetonians to squeeze in a cycle along the Cape peninsular, a run along Table Mountain or surf in the icy waters of Muizenberg beach before work. The South African climate lends itself to enjoying the outdoors and an active lifestyle. Post-work socializing, however, could be easily compared to any major city – drinks at a trendy bar, dinner at a friend’s apartment or a sunset dip in the ocean. South Africans work hard, but they also know a thing or two about having fun outside of work! That being said, Cape Town naturally has a more laid-back attitude than other major South African cities such as Johannesburg.



Pre-work run in Cape Town


Societal inequalities

Working in a corporate environment in South Africa, one becomes acutely aware of the country’s approximately 35% unemployment rate. One might drive to work in a comfortable car and pass by several homeless people, begging at traffic lights or finding shelter under a bridge. Just a 5 km drive from a relatively well-off neighbourhood, with gardens and well-maintained service systems, you may find an informal settlement with no running water and poorly built structures. The differences are stark and uncomfortable. And yet, there is a remarkable sense of vibrancy in these impoverished areas.


Storytelling

In South Africa, there are several notable national sports – rugby, cricket, hockey and braai-ing (the South African barbeque)! This is a time when friends, family or colleagues gather around the fire, a glass of red wine from the Stellenbosch Winelands in hand, and tell stories and jokes in a uniquely South African way. Banter is part of our society – laughing and telling humorous stories, oftentimes at the expense of oneself. South Africans are resilient people and tend to deal with hardships with a unique sense of humour and a ready laugh.

All this being said, the experience of working in South Africa has been incredibly enriching; the valuable insights we gain from working in different environments allows us to incorporate new perspectives into the workplace – and our personal lives too. We can learn a great deal from people with different life stories, professional backgrounds and cultural beliefs. But perhaps what has stood out the most is the realization that undertaking a digital transformation project, in this case, in South Africa is not entirely different to that of Belgium. The BrightWolves approach and frameworks have proven to be adaptable universally.