From cooking traditional dishes such as samp and beans to dressing in customary outfits and holding demonstrations of indigenous crafts, the education non-profit Good Work Foundation (GWF) embraces the heritage of each and every staff member and learner – and this ethos extends beyond Heritage Month to form part of the organisation’s core culture.
“I think our diversity is definitely a factor in our sustainability and longevity as an organisation,” says GWF’s head of operations, Musa Mokoena, as it celebrates the 10th anniversary of its flagship Hazyview Digital Learning Campus in rural Mpumalanga.
She strongly believes that the different languages, backgrounds and cultures that the staff, children and adult learners bring to the table serve to strengthen and enrich the entity – and says other organisations would do well to embrace workplace diversity as an asset and not a threat.
“For me, Heritage Month is about recognising and valuing our differences in ethnicity, gender, age, [dis]ability, sexual orientation, culture, language and background,” says Mokoena.
“Operating in the rural space as we do, we have people here from many different backgrounds – some from Mpumalanga, some from Joburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town, et cetera. Some grew up in a village, others in a township and others in the Hazyview suburbs. We embrace that diversity to create a common workplace culture where we give people the freedom to be themselves, within their own traditions, cultures and languages.”
She says even though GWF focuses on enhancing English literacy skills among rural learners to get them workplace ready and help equip them for the rigours of tertiary education, this does not mean that anyone’s mother tongue is pushed aside. Instead, a culture of curiosity and mutual learning is encouraged.
“We want people to improve their English while not leaving their own language behind, so you will also always hear Setswana, Sepedi, Xitsonga and other languages here. We learn from each other. As an isiZulu speaker, I am now speaking more Siswati, and others are learning isiZulu from me.
“It enriches us as a group when we embrace each other’s languages and cultures, while remaining authentic to ourselves.”
Every year, staff and learners from the six GWF campuses in rural Mpumalanga and Philippolis in the Free State celebrate Heritage Day by bringing traditional dishes to enjoy together.
“We love sharing food from our different cultures. Some will bring samp and beans, others ujeqe [steamed bread] and idombolo [dumplings], and others will bring kotas.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to learn about each other and exchange ideas – and recipes. It deepens our understanding of each other. For example, as a Zulu where our starch of choice is mainly uphuthu, I’ve learned that Vastonga food is mostly protein-based – and you will even find different ways of cooking mopane worms between [the adjacent Mpumalanga towns of] Bushbuckridge and Hazyview.”
While sharing this “feast of nations”, the different campuses also relish the opportunity to dress up to the nines in traditional attire, sing folk songs, dance and present craft showcases during their Heritage Day celebrations – all in the tradition of their grandparents, and their ancestors before them.
Mokoena says this respect for people’s heritage extends to the deep-seated reverence the GWF family has for their elders, a mainstay of many African cultures. From valuing the immense vault of knowledge stored by GWF stalwart and “wisdom counsel” Maureen “Gogo Mo” Groch to showing respect for senior members of staff, they value the experience of these “living treasures”.
“Our culture at GWF is rooted in the respect we have for each other – that’s what keeps us moving,” says Mokoena.
“In fact, respect is one of our organisational values, and is embedded in the way we speak to each other and interact with each other. We are adding kindness as one of our values as well, as respect and kindness go hand in hand. I believe that our foundation of mutual respect has brought us together and held us together for these 10 years – and will keep us going strong.”
Good Work Foundation CEO Kate Groch agrees that diversity can be a hidden weapon in creating a strong, cohesive organisation – and says this applies to non-profits as much as it does to corporates.
“It’s been proven over and over that having a diverse mix of people and worldviews in any workplace makes it fertile ground for innovation, creativity and better problem-solving. We have certainly found that at Good Work Foundation. Our diverse experiences and cultures have only served to strengthen us as an organisation and have, in fact, been instrumental in our growth. It’s part of our DNA and I couldn’t imagine it any other way – our success definitely stems from our vibrant diversity.”