Communication, language and collective compassion

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

The recent xenophobic attacks and its reverberating effect on the entire South African landscape raised a plethora of safety and security issues, much of which appears to have been avoided or placed on the response backburner. The lived experiences of the affected parties, both South African citizens and foreign nationals, have been consistently reported on since the 2008 xenophobic attacks and the presence of brewing tension was indeed a clear and obvious concern. These lived experiences are indeed powerful and intricate entities which cannot be ignored or invalidated. The added elements of politics, nuanced language, fear, conflicting perspectives and meanings soon resulted in a situation characterised by a confluence of complexities and an amalgamation of inconsistencies. The April 2015 attacks, as a tipping point, now sees South Africa as a complex social system going back to the drawing board. The acknowledgement of the crisis was an important step and communicated, at the very least, that our South Africa is not at all healthy or glowing like the 1994 new-born. It provided a brief moment for leaders to take a breath of air and self-organise to respond to a volatile situation. What emerged was inspirational and included people from all walks of life – civil society, business, government, foreign nationals and faith based organisations – coming together with a unified voice against the brutality of xenophobia.

Lack of effective communication
However, as with many other responses to social injustices, tension and discontent, effective communication in the daily interactions between all spheres of society, government and the individual human actors is still sorely lacking. Blame shifting is an everyday occurrence with phrases such as “I was misquoted” or “used out of context” being a frequent visitor in media reports on prejudicial utterances or statements made by prominent figures. With 11 official languages and diverse cultural backgrounds, it may be a worthwhile exercise to have a public dialogue on issues related to communication and its intersect with factors such as cultural and racial sensitivity, meanings attached to words and the language and expressions we use as South Africans. Whatever may be permissible to one individual or group in an audience may not necessarily be beneficial to the other. Finding a golden midway is an elusive goal, but striving towards collective compassion and consideration is something within our grasp.

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The lack of – or inconsiderate communication in itself often communicates a diverse range of destructive messages which compounds the experience of a citizen, victim or complainant who interacts with service providers or the relevant authorities mandated to respond to crime or injustices. After considering the UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power as well as experiences from around the world, Frank (2007: 11–13) highlights the themes that emerge when considering the needs of victims of crime. The element of communication directly or indirectly resonates with each of these needs which include the need for:

  • access to justice and fair treatment;
  • contact with the criminal justice system;
  • safety and protection;
  • information;
  • assistance and services;
  • continuity;
  • to have a voice; and
  • validation and acknowledgement.

Culture and context
Stowell and Welch (2012:87) states that communication involves both transmission and reception — not just transmission. As a two-way process, communication requires a shared understanding of what has been communicated and can only be said to have taken place when the receiver receives something that is meaningful to him. Furthermore, the absorption of a specific culture and the context in which a specific expression or word is uttered is required for such a two-way process to take place, even if a person is familiar with a specific language. Current examples in the South African context (in the English language) may be:

  • ‘Yebo Gogo’ (as used in the Vodacom commercial) might be understood as an affirmative answer when spoken between two South African citizens, irrespective of their race, diverse cultural background or language.
  • The phrase “don’t be a Steve” which denotes ignorance and foolishness and based on the character called ‘Steve’ in the First National Bank radio commercials, might not be understood by a fellow African visitor from another country; and
  • A visitor from the United States asking for a ‘napkin’ whilst visiting a restaurant in Cape Town, might be surprised to learn that the interpretation of ‘napkin’ in South Africa refers to sanitary wear for babies and that the word ‘serviette’ is better suited for the occasion.

Communication emerges as a combination of logical, physical and psychological steps. Multiple factors can affect the successful transmission of messages, which will then influence the behaviour of any system to which they are relevant. Shortcomings and failures in communication in complex social systems can have serious consequences for the human actors involved (Stowell and Welch, 2012:89-90).  As Silvia Broome (in The Interpreter played by Nicole Kidman) rightfully stated: “Countries have gone to war because they misinterpreted one another”.

With explosive tension underpinning a number of recent debates around issues of race, ethnicity, history and culture, it is important for us as South Africans to engage reflexively with our choice of language, words and expressions. By embracing the greater good and collective compassion, we can make significant advances in our renewed quest towards reconciliation and justice.


Frank, C. (2007). Quality services guaranteed? A review of victim policy in South Africa. ISS Monograph Series, 137 July

Stowell, F. & Welch, C. 2012. The Manager’s Guide to Systems Practice: Making Sense of Complex Problems. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


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