Cultural difference – curious or close-minded?

Mandela 2

He’s gone. Along with many others I wept when I heard the news.

Coincidentally I had just finished reading “Goodbye Bafana” – the most astonishing tale of how Mandela’s warder changed his whole way of thinking through being in close proximity to Mandela and his fellow prisoners and ended up a close friend and, in a typical Mandela gesture, a guest at his inauguration as President.

So much food for thought.

And then along comes the memorial service and some of this morning’s commentary in the British press. For anyone who thinks about culture, diversity and inclusion it is revealing….

Daily Mail: “it’s my view that yesterday’s memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela not only failed to reflect the towering achievements of the man – at times, it was a shambolic disgrace to his name.”

The Guardian: “… it was a tribute that did not match the monumental stature of the man”

The Times: “With a distinct lack of the decorum expected at a memorial service to the icon of the South African civil rights struggle…….”

And so on.

So why am I writing about this?

Well I have worked on and led programmes designed to drive cultural reinforcement or change for many years.

For me a key element of any diversity or inclusion initiative  is to try and open people’s minds to difference, encourage them to step in, not away, when they meet someone who is very different to them, to be curious rather than judgmental about things which at first may seem “alien” or “weird” or “unusual” and to welcome new experiences. Difficult. Not what we are progammed to do. And not what we are seeing in this reaction.

And how might we Brits have organised a memorial to such a leader if we had been fortunate enough to have him as one of our own?

Military precision no doubt. Lots of military too. Very black. Very dignified. Very sombre. Big cathedral. Gun carriage through London. Cliff Richard uniting the nation with some tunes at Wembley Arena. Maybe a tenor or soprano or two. Lots of shiny medals on display. Dignitaries inside. Everyone else lining the streets. Upper lips at their most stiff. All probably very different for the South African watching on TV.


Instead at the Mandela memorial we saw something which was vibrant, in our terms maybe “shambolic” (actually people laughing, singing, chanting and celebrating. Yes that’s celebrating) and wet (but that’s a good thing in other cultures). People who were unrestrained, reacting with authenticity to what was going on around them and remembering Mandela in a way which was, I am sure, perfect for their culture.

I’m going to try and remember how I feel about this lack of curiosity about difference, this judgment of others, next time I’m leading a change programme.  I’m going to remember the importance of authenticity, inclusion and intent.

And to the British press – those colonial days are long gone and we can learn from what we encounter rather than jump to judgment.  Can’t we?


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