Once again I found myself at O R Tambo airport eagerly waiting to get a flight home after yet another week in Johannesburg. No surprises there! If they could just move the Johannesburg economy and business buzz to Durban, without the traffic, road works and of course the Lions (the local rugby team)…now that would be the answer I thought to myself. Such aimless musings are par for the course at the end of a busy week on the Highveld. Any further thoughts of this ideal blend were interrupted by the need to answer the call of nature and so, without further delay, I made my way to the ‘Gents’.
Upon entering the establishment I was greeted by a loud and cheery, “Welcome to my office, Sir” by the alert and energetic Janitor. It was the way the greeting was delivered that arrested attention. Fully evident was an energy, an appealing sincerity and a spark that meant one couldn’t help but smile by way of response. It was a hard-to-ignore type of greeting and it got me thinking: Where did such enthusiasm and energy come from? Was this something that could be trained, or was it deeper than that? And so curious, I watched and observed. Now loitering around such establishments is not normally something I would recommend, but I was fascinated by this Gentleman’s approach to his job – one that if I am to honest, would seldom, if ever, warrant such unbridled enthusiasm.
As I loitered and watched, the intensity of the greeting never waned. It was consistent and enhanced by touches of creativity that seemed to touch everyone who encountered it in a different way. It is one thing to walk into a gents smiling but quite another to leave grinning! And yet everyone did…it was that contagious. I even witnessed the Janitor, after someone had managed to exit ‘his office’ without receiving a farewell greeting, chase after the individual in order to ensure that he got one!
This is the magic of Africa. It is this ability to touch others in unexpected ways and to bring a smile where none is warranted that will be what makes the African FIFA World Cup so unique. This will be the thing that the thousands who are about to descend on our shores will leave with – the abiding memory of a people who, in spite of their situation, are smile-makers. You can’t train this, bottle-it or manufacture it. It is simply part of what makes Africa so special in spite of all the well-documented challenges we face. I know this because I get to travel extensively and even as I encounter wonderful places where things work, where things are put away and everything and everyone seems party to some grandly orchestrated scheme of pure managed efficiency, nothing can replace that magical African dust that once it becomes one with you, never leaves.
The Janitor would be the kind of person I would want in my business were I to own a retail outlet or have need to service the public day-in and day-out. Whatever skills might need to be added would be the easy part of the equation; they can be added with just a little investment of some time and effort. It is what the Janitor brings with him, that special internal ingredient, that cannot be trained and that is what good customer service and creating customer experience is all about. If only there were more like him and perhaps there are but it is our inability to see them, to recognize them, that is the real stumbling block here.
For those fortunate enough to get here, experiencing Africa will be the gift that Africa has for those discerning adventurers. Some will get to experience the very same things only to leave frustrated, disappointed or even angry. For to experience Africa, and get to see the magic, takes a certain mindset, a certain predisposed condition without which, it is easy to miss the magic. Just a distracting thought here: Could this explain why it is that children see magic when many of us adults don’t? Tragically, it is a magic that many locals, including many that I know well and for whom Africa has been very kind, seem destined to miss. And, as we would say in Africa, “ag shame” or perhaps, “haibo”!
The FIFA World Cup in South Africa will not run as efficiently as the German edition of four years ago. Nor should it. For one thing the geographical logistics here are far more complex than they were in Germany and expecting the German efficiency to be evident here is unfair. So expect this World Cup to be different. There will be a vibrancy, colour and energy to this edition that will be unparalleled. It will be an experience not to be missed and one that will surprise and delight in unexpected ways.
How do I know this?
Well, next time you happen to be at O R Tambo airport, pay a visit to the Gents near gate D6…provided of course, you are eligible to enter such an exclusive establishment!
Enjoy the magic.
Lovely article Keith. We returned through OR Thambo on Sunday. After 3+ weeks travelling in Europe we were stunned by the warmth, welcome and vibe. It was truly great to be home. A home which has many imperfections but just like family we still love it.
My husband often tells foreigners, “Be careful if you visit Africa. It gets in your blood.” That is the magic you speak of.
I think this particular individual is not a sign to one set of ablutions (near date D6). I encountered him on Sunday morning in the gents on the second level (retail level).
Or perhaps Airports Company South Africa has embarked on the training and customer relations drive!
Good one Keith. I met a few of these guys on a trip to Namibia. Definitely in the dust of Africa and the “stardust” of our Universe. We just need to to be conscious enough to notice and ask the right questions. Our challenge.