When I arrived in South Africa a couple of months ago, the presence of security staff in many public and private places was unfamiliar to me. There is security staff on the campus, in public parks, in streets highly frequented by pedestrians, at every gate and parking lot entrance, in malls, and in shops alike. Besides patrolling the area, the security staff on the campus even offers services such as accompanying students to their cars or waiting with them for an Uber in the dark. Uber is a popular car ride service in South Africa. This escort service is provided almost all night, at least at venues such as some libraries which are open all day and night.
Most of the individuals working in the security sector are employed by the respective institution or by the municipality. In general, they wear uniforms, are not armed and their function is more surveillance than law enforcement. Additionally, security staff inform if there is short-term information, for example regarding new Covid regulations or changed opening hours. However, the maybe most important function is supporting, be it giving directions or be it safety advice. On one of my first days, one security guard approached me as I arrived on my bicycle and recommended, that I should buy another lock to lock my bike and explained why.
A lot of the security staff are black or coloured South African. In the Western Cape district, where my host university is, the prevalent black African population is Xhosa, the third largest population group in South Africa, and their language is isiXhosa.
Shortly after the beginning of classes at the University, some persons of the campus security became familiar after crossing each other every other day. Equally, some security guards recognized me soon because I ride my bike to university and there are not many students on bicycles. Especially if it rains. It seems that riding a bicycle in rainy weather is very unusual in the Western Cape.
South Africans communicate in a very friendly and open way. Thus, a small talk now and then quickly became natural to me: about the weather, about the latest or next rugby game or, as very often happens, about my accent, my country of origin, how I like South Africa, the culture of Xhosa or cultural differences in general.
Since I learned some basics in isiXhosa in a short course, I try to use my little knowledge when chatting with the guards. The intention to converse in an African language is appreciated a lot and my attempts to pronounce the click sounds correctly have led to many situations where we laughed a lot. Xhosa people especially cherish greetings in their language and their cultural setting where the family, ancestors and the community are very important. In isiXhosa, people are greeted not by their name but by their position in the community. If I greet a same-age male guard in an easy-going informal setting, I call him “Molo Bhuti”, which means “Hello Brother”. And his reply is then “Molo Sisi”, which means “Hello Sister”. In contrast, sometimes they call me “Molo Mama”, which means Hello Mother, and shows respect as I could be a mother and wife. But just “Molo” without an adequate member of the community, is inappropriate.
Today, these encounters are part of my daily life, and it feels unfamiliar if the security staff is not around – not because of their function to provide safety and security, but from a social and intercultural perspective.