Diversity and cross-cultural issues in South Africa

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In South Africa, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.

Outside of South Africa’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of South Africa are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in South Africa, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in South Africa[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in South Africa recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, sessions are held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

Issues of diversity in Peace Corps South Africa are mediated by the Diversity Committee, a body of current volunteers who have been elected to represent their peers. The staff liaison is currently PTO Lisa Jordan. The Diversity Committee plans and runs the diversity sessions held during pre-service and in-service training, and also currently runs a blog (http://meltingpotintherainbownation.blogspot.com ) that highlights and discusses issues of diversity that volunteers faced; the entries are authored by PCVs living in South Africa.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

South Africa has a patriarchal culture. This may not seem to be the case when one considers the number of women in high-level government and private-sector positions. However, men and women are expected to fulfill distinct roles and responsibilities. In rural areas female Volunteers may find extremely conservative attitudes regarding gender equality.

Likewise, the behavior of female Volunteers is more often scrutinized or criticized than that of their male peers. Although the Peace Corps emphasizes understanding of and sensitivity toward other cultures, it will occasionally be necessary to explain or defend why you believe something or behave a certain way. Female Volunteers may find that they are constantly asked about their marital status and whether they have children because women are expected to be married.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

South Africa is still divided along color lines as a result of the legacy of apartheid. All Volunteers, regardless of their color, will receive certain privileges or face discrimination because of the color of their skin. Volunteers will find themselves placed in one of four categories: white, Coloured, black, or Asian. This labeling has been a major source of frustration for Volunteers, and developing strategies for handling this frustration is a task in and of itself. Peace Corps/South Africa Volunteers have developed a diversity committee to explore the diversity of both South Africa and the United States and have established forums for discussions and exchanges.

At one time or another, all Volunteers serving in South Africa may find that services are denied or offered based on skin color; that white skin brings privileges that may not be wanted or deserved; that they constantly have to explain that they are an American and not a South African white, Coloured, Asian, or black; that skin color determines the level of trust or confidence people have in their ability; that they are accepted more readily into the culture than other Volunteers because of skin color; that they are engaged in conversations with South Africans who hold adamant views against another group; that services are offered to them but denied to another Volunteer or counterpart who is accompanying them; that they are the subject of disparaging remarks based on current or historical roles of certain ethnic groups (e.g., assuming Asians are merchants); and that people hold stereotyped views based on behavior observed in American films and sitcoms (e.g., most African Americans are “gangbangers”).

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

Respect comes with age in South Africa. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Senior Volunteers are seen as those with the most wisdom and experience and other valuable things to offer. South Africans are often surprised by the amount of energy and the physical fitness of senior Volunteers. South Africans may also be curious about senior female Volunteers, puzzled as to why they seem to have no spouse or children even if they have the pictures to prove otherwise.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers must know that South Africa is a very conservative society. Many South Africans, especially in rural areas, are in denial that homosexuality exists in their culture. Thus any display of your sexuality will be severely frowned upon. Some previous Volunteers have decided to serve their time in South Africa under the cloak of silence to prevent adverse effects on their relations with their community and co-workers. You can find some helpful information at www.geocities.com/lgbrpcv/, a website affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association that provides information on serving in the Peace Corps as a gay or lesbian.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Religion is a very important part of the lives of people in rural areas. There are a variety of groups and denominations and you will be asked more than once to attend someone’s church. On any Sunday, whether in rural areas or cities, you can distinguish among the various groups by their distinctive uniforms. Volunteers not in the practice of attending church may be challenged to explain their reluctance, but it is possible to decline to attend if the church or religious practice is not of one’s own denomination. In addition, prayer is an important part of any function. No meeting, event, or even the beginning of school can start without a prayer, and people may be insulted if they do. This may take getting used to, but Volunteers have found effective ways to cope with these challenges and have come to feel quite at home in South Africa.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

There is little infrastructure in the country to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities. No schools or other facilities in rural areas teach disabled children or accommodate people with disabilities. Peace Corps/South Africa staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of service in South Africa without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service.