Universities need to get to grips with cultural diversity

How should we understand and work with cultural diversity on our university campuses?

Culture is the way of life for an entire society and includes codes of conduct, dress, language, religion, rituals, traditions and belief systems.

Cultural diversity is the make-up of various social structures and strategies that different cultures use to adapt to different life situations.

The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society”.

Tradition and language
I want to consider here how cultural diversity applies to the students of the Vaal University of Technology (where I work), and to focus on tradition in the sense of how students were raised and their use of language.

If we look at the world around us today, we will find that there is a clear presence of cultural diversity. South Africa has been called the rainbow nation because it is made up of so many diverse cultures.

The Vaal University of Technology is an excellent example of this, but having so many different cultures in one place can create a nest for a rainbow-coloured monster.

Yes, we live in a rainbow nation, but people are still very ethnocentric. William G Sumner, a professor of sociology, created the term “ethnocentrism” – the technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the centre of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. He further characterised it as often leading to pride, vanity and the beliefs of one’s own group’s superiority.

A thorn in the side
Ethnocentrism can be seen as the thorn in the side of cultural diversity. During one of my classes, we spoke about intercultural communication and how cultural diversity can have a negative impact on some students, who are the future of our country.

After the class, one of my students came and told me: “I’m from a Zulu family. My parents are really strict when it comes to tradition and they feel that the people I hang out with and even date should also be from Zulu families.” His family raised him in such a way that he only sees the world around him according to how they want him to see it.

What really shook me was that he liked a girl from a Venda family but was too afraid to make his feelings known because of the strict ethnocentric values his parents enforced.

Students also told me, for instance, that, when it comes to group work, people from a certain ethnic group would rather work alone or be the dominating person in the group. This can be negative, because they might feel they are superior to other members of the group. But it can also be viewed positively in the sense that, when that person needs to work by themselves, you know you will get excellent work.

Language and identity
Another aspect of cultural diversity is language: we don’t all understand one another’s home language. The Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa summit of 2014 stated that the South African population consists of the following groups: the Nguni (comprising the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi people); Sotho-Tswana, which includes the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana people); Tsonga; Venda; Afrikaners; English; coloureds; Indians; the Khoi-San; and those who have immigrated to, or came to study in, South Africa from the rest of Africa, Europe and Asia and who maintain a strong cultural identity.

And each culture has its own language. I interviewed five students from different cultures to determine whether they believe that language use has a negative impact on them.

The overall answer to this was mixed. The five students all agreed that language has a negative impact on them, especially when it comes to group work. For instance, if the majority of a group is Sotho-speaking, then they will communicate in Sesotho, leaving the other students in the dark.

Two of the students said that they also experience language diversity in a positive way because it gives them the chance to learn different languages, which will help them in the workplace one day.

Ethnocentrism shows it ugly head when it comes to students from other countries. At the Vaal University of Technology we have a lot of students from other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance.

Ostracised because of how you speak
These students speak French and many of them cannot communicate in English as well as their fellow students. These students are then ostracised: they will get a smaller part in a role-play assessment or presentation and will struggle to form part of the group because they do not understand what the other students are saying.

This is why I suggest cultural diversity can sometimes be a rainbow-coloured monster.

Yet culture is passed on from one generation to the next: it is not static but always changing as each generation contributes its experience of the world and discards things that are no longer useful to them. By not having a static culture, we can turn cultural diversity into cultural unity.

One needs to understand other cultures not only to be able to work together, but also to form part of a true rainbow nation. Being “Proudly South African” encourages South Africans to value one another and the country and to help to build people up, rather than break them down.

Quintin Senekal is a lecturer in the department of communication and education, human sciences faculty, Vaal University of TechnologyGet to grips with cultural diversity

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