BOSS Blog 6: Common culture or sense-of-purpose? The case of Joburg

Joburg: common values and culture, or common purpose?

In this BOSS blog 6, I (Gert Jan) want to raise the issue of whether shared values are necessary in order to work together in an organization. I take the case of Joburg and South Africa.


As a visiting professor, I sometimes come to Joburg / Johannesburg, South Africa. To me, this is a maelstrom of impressions. Every day can start out cool and become sweltering, and then stormy. High walls and electric fences block access everywhere, but for public parks and swimming pools. Big white cars on the roads, closing their windows when stopping at crossroads. Brown people walking on the elephant paths everywhere, dressed anything from fancy to frazzled. Father Christmas grins at me amidst African woven baskets. I’ve seen colonial scenes, boerenworst braai, wildlife husbandry, classical concerts for all colours. I’ve cycled through ramshackle bridges under roads, open air churches. Nobody thinks twice about all of this. Everyone goes around their business. People are happy to greet and chat.

Eleven languages, one culture?

Teaching here, I am asked by my multicoloured students about South African culture. The Hofstede database has dimension scores for South Africa – largely from the predominantly Anglo population working for IBM fifty years ago. How about the other ethnic groups? This country has eleven official languages. These are all acquired from birth. Does this mean eleven cultures? Yes, of course. Is that a problem? It's similar to a merger in business.


Last week, the Rugby World Championship final was held between the Springboks (South Africa) and England. The many-coloured Boks won spectaculary by 32-12. Joburg was on its head, regardless of colour.

Shared sense of purpose!

Do the Springboks need a common deep culture to win the game? Do they need to eat, pray, and structure their families in the same manner? No, they don’t. They do need to understand one another seamlessly when in the field. What they need, in effect, is a common sense-of-purpose, and a shared set of practices.

Symbolism and future

It is not for nothing that Cyril Ramaphosa, the President and father of the family, was amid the players after the match, wearing a team shirt. The team symbolizes the country. The image of a common purpose for all of South Africa makes it possible to imagine a common destiny. Race issues can be overcome, and the eleven cultures of South Africa may slowly converge in future generations.

Work to do: convictions, not values

South Africa does have its challenges. My point here is that yes, a common organization culture is needed for those living in the same space. But as far as deep cultural values go, these does not need to be uniform. Freedom and tolerance will take the country far, as long as there is a sense of common purpose and a willingness to listen. This is in effect a shared conviction, not shared values. It will not be easy, but who said the Bokkies would win the cup?


G.J. Hofstede (2015) Culture’s Causes: the next challenge. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal 22 (4), 545 – 569.