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In the past, it has been argued that there is a universal way of reasoning worldwide. However, through extensive research, this argument has been changing slowly. Richard Nisbett together with Hofstede have critically evaluated this issue and established that people from different parts of the world have distinct processes of reasoning. Nisbett in particular has contrasted the western way of reasoning with the eastern one, and in his book, Geography of thought, he has demonstrated that the American way of reasoning is quite different from the Chinese way of reasoning. Realizing this fact would be a milestone for NGOs that operate in different parts of the world because it would minimize cultural conflicts and simplify organizational processes. By focusing its attention on NGOs that deal with HIV/AIDS issues in South Africa, this paper demonstrates how the South African culture affects the structure and operations of NGOs in the country.



Table of content

Introduction. 4

The History of NGOs in SA.. 5

Geopolitical issues in South Africa. 6

Organizational culture in South Africa. 6

NGOs in South Africa. 7

Geography of thought 8

Insight from an interview with USAID.. 10

Cultural Effects. 11

Political Influence. 13

Recommendations. 15

Conclusion. 16

References. 18



Richard Nisbett in his geography of thought evaluates the differences between western and eastern thought patterns. He establishes that there are distinct differences between the two thought systems (Nisbett, 2003). Hofstede, on the other hand, in his cultures and organizations defines different dimensions of culture that differentiate them. As his counterpart, he establishes that there are distinct differences among world cultures (Hofstede, 2003). These differences do not only affect the way people from different parts of the world behave, but they also affect the way people run organizations in their respective parts of the world.

South Africa is an African country that lies at the southernmost part of the African continent. The country is widely known for its apartheid practices and high number of HIV/AIDS victims totaling to about 5.6 million people (Dernberger, 2014). Back in the early 1990s and 1980s, these two social problems attracted the world’s attention. As a result, NGOs were established in the country to address the said problems. With respect to this practice, NGOs have been operating in SA even before the country attained independence in 1994. In fact, HIV/AIDS related organizations have been in the country since the first incidence of HIV/AIDS was reported in the country in the early 1980s (Klaus, 2013). Since then, these organizations have remained in the country. One notable thing about these organizations has been that cultural difference and geo-politics have influenced the way they are managed and their daily operations. With a critical evaluation of Geography of thought together with Cultures and organizations, this paper evaluates how cultural practices and geo-politics in SA have influenced NGOs that deal with HIV/AIDS pandemic in the country. The paper argues that in realization that these organizations do not operate in vacuum, the said organizations have transformed for good.

The History of NGOs in SA

In South Africa, there are two distinct historical periods of NGOs. The first period was pre-1990. This period was before the country attained independence and subsequently transformed NGOs’ management. During this period, there were activist organizations that solely capitalized on criticizing the government. There were also social welfare organizations. These organizations received money from the government and to a great extent supported apartheid practices by not opposing the government in any way. The two types of organizations worked towards providing services to black people that were somewhat neglected by the government. Before 1990, the state government banned activist NGOs. Accordingly, they operated illegally and they risked being banned. Most of the people that ran activist NGOs were political activists rather than professionals (Spierenburg, 2004). As opposed to what transpired later on, raising funds for activist NGOs was easy because foreign donors were willing to support them. Transparency was not an issue because what mattered was political influence. In addition, effectiveness of NGOs was not an issue.

The second historical period of NGOs in SA was after 1990. This period runs to date. As the case would turn out this period marks a period of transformation, and to a great extent, regional politics and cultural influences have been dominant in the management of NGOs. This historical period coincided with the formation of the new government in the country. However, immediately the new government came into power, conventional sources of funds for NGOs were frozen. Accordingly, majority of the foreign donor organizations in the country collaborated with the new government. This left majority of the NGOs bankrupt, thus, led to collapse of some of them. The service-oriented organizations were not drastically affected because the government continued to support them. However, the activist NGOs did not have critical roles to play in the new government because the members of the public hoped that the new government would deliver services to them. Despite the fact that there was concerted effort in 1996 to revive NGOs, the effort was hampered by great outflow of visionary leaders to private sector and government (Spierenburg, 2004).

Geopolitical issues in South Africa

SA is a multi-party country with over thirteen political parties. In spite of this fact, ANC is the dominant political party thereby influences politics in the country. The country’s national assembly passes legislation as well as oversees what the executive arm of the government does in running the government. Since independence, the country has been holding national elections after five years without fail (Cohen, 2003). From a general perspective, the country is a democracy thereby condones divergent view. However, this practice does not come out clearly because of cultural practices. The surrounding countries are also democratic and SA is at peace with them. This means that there are no political wrangles between SA and neighboring countries.

Organizational culture in South Africa

By definition, organizational culture outlines what employees in an organization believe, practice, observe and the policies that delineate working relations among them. Globally, organizational cultures are different because people from different parts of the world have different cultural practices. South Africa is not an exceptional. Accordingly, South African organizations have cultural practices that reflect South African national culture (Clarke, & Holt-Biddle, 2002). This culture reflects what South Africans do on daily basis and what they prioritize in life. It also reflects South African ways of life and what they believe. From a psychological viewpoint, Nisbett expects South Africans to behave or reason in a particular way. To a great extent, this is true because South African pay attention to a wide range of experiences rather than focusing their attention on one pertinent experience (Nisbett, 2003). By this I mean that the issue of HIV/AIDS in SA has been considered to result from many pertinent issues. Accordingly, some people believe it a curse from ancestors while others think it is a punishment from God and nothing can be done about it.

NGOs in South Africa

In South Africa, even though NGOs do not necessarily rely on government for funding, the government has excessive control on these organizations. However, this does not mean that NGOs report to government directly, but it means that NGOs deal with non-political issues only. Generally, South African government does not condone NGOs that engage in political issues. Some NGOs that have contravened this practice in the past have been forcefully shut down even though South Africa is a democratic nation (Rohleder, 2009). According to Hofstede, the cultural dimension in South Africa has a larger distance between NGOs and government in the sense that government has almost total control on NGOs (Hofstede, 2003). Accordingly, every NGO operating in South Africa has to restrict its mandate in social problems that do not deal with political issues in any way. Aware of this fact, South African NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDs restrict their mandates to this pandemic and in most cases distance themselves from political issues even if some of them affect their daily practices.

From a broad perspective, political environment in South Africa shapes NGOs that specialize in fighting HIV/AIDS. According to Dernberger (2014), these organizations do not exist in vacuum. Instead, they operate in a political environment that is dominant in nature despite democracy in the country. Hofstede relates this practice to uncertainty avoidance and power distance between NGOs and the government. According to him, the government utilizes its political supremacy to avoid possible uncertainties that foreign agencies operating in the name of NGOs may bring to the country (Hofstede, 2003). It can be argued that unlike USA where NGOs influence government and to some extent shape it, the contrast is true in SA. In other words, it can be argued that government influences and shapes NGOs in SA. In spite of this fact, these organizations influence greatly the fight against HIV/AIDS in SA (Dernberger, 2014).

Turning our attention away from politics, NGOs in most cases are located within communities that need them most. In South Africa, these organizations are located in local hospitals with high numbers of HIV/AIDS victims. For these organizations to be effective, they constantly interact with local communities (Dernberger, 2014). They visit them in their social places where they meet for social activities. On the other hand, South Africans are used to community services that provide services to them directly at local levels. HIV/AIDS NGOs embrace this practice in delivering services to the members of public. In particular, they identify HIV/AIDS victims and provide services to them directly at local hospitals or in other local places. Apart from this, some NGOs form social welfares for HIV/AIDS victims and use them to deliver services to these people. Largely, this practice has been instrumental in the fight against HIV/AIDS because South Africans are used to social welfare systems. This practice helps NGOs in building relationships with local communities (Dernberger, 2014).

Geography of thought

Richard Nisbett argues that Americans are quite different culturally and psychologically from Chinese. His argument is based on the high sense of personal agency that Americans demonstrate in their lives and the collective agency that Chinese demonstrate in their lives. His argument is that Chinese nurture their senses of self through communal activities, prescribed roles and through social relations. On the contrary, Americans nurture their senses of self through curiosity. In general, Chinese understand objects by evaluating their relationships with environment while Americans understand objects in isolation (Nisbett, 2003).

One notable thing with Nisbett is that he argues that Americans approach issues in a more deterministic way that does not care about the larger picture. On the contrary, Chinese approach issues by evaluating the larger picture. In this respect, community is more important to Chinese than it is to Americans. When we seek to understand whether mental programming can be changed or enhanced through learning, Hofstede tells us that it not possible until the cultural one is unlearned. In others words, it is almost impossible to change cultures given that they are highly embedded in people’s minds. Suffice to say that it is almost impossible to change cultural practices even though it is possible to influence them in one way or the other. In the same sense, it is almost impossible to change organizational cultures even if it is possible to influence them by embracing cultural diversity. This notwithstanding, Nisbett observes that it is possible to change culture by indoctrinating certain habits to children right from birth (Nisbett, 2003). Hofstede echoes this idea when he highlights generational level of culture that distinguishes children from their parents and grandparents (Hofstede, 2003).

According to Nisbett (2003), Americans run NGOs differently from South Africans because they believe so much in having control over issues. In essence, Americans believe that they can control governments through NGOs by challenging them because they have been taught to approach issues that way right from birth. On the contrary, South Africans are programmed in a manner that cannot challenge government through NGOs because they believe governments have excessive power. In addition, South Africans have been brought up in an African set up that teaches them to respect parents and authority. Apart from this, South Africans tend to think that events are highly intricate and that many factors determine and affect them. In this respect, HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be approached by NGOs alone, but this pandemic should be approached from different perspectives. Accordingly, NGOs have to take care of many issues that affect HIV/AIDS as they address the said pandemic in SA (Clark, 2009). This means that it is impossible to sideline government and cultural practices in the process of addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in SA. With this understanding, it is possible for American NGOs working in SA to approach HIV/AIDS pandemic in a manner that may suggest that the said NGO has control over the pandemic and in so doing forget government’s control over it.

Insight from an interview with USAID

USAID has been one of the greatest NGOs that spearhead the fight against HIV/AIDS in SA. This organization fights the pandemic by enhancing basic education, advocating for gender equality, creating employment, preventing the pandemic and caring for the sick as well as improving job skills (Ellison, Parker, & Campbell, 2003). In a nutshell, this method can be said to be more American rather than Africans because the organization seeks to promote self rather than communal activities.

I conducted an interview with Mrs. Wilson who has been a program officer for this organization and from this interview I learnt the following. First, South Africans believe in the powers of ancestors that punish people for wrongdoing. With regard to this belief, South Africans consider HIV/AIDS to be a punishment from ancestors. Accordingly, when people contract this disease, they go to traditional healers that have power to connect them to their ancestors for healing. To some extent, this practice enhances the prevalence for the pandemic in SA (Ellison, Parker, & Campbell, 2003). Second, program officers go to villages where HIV/AIDS victims live as opposed to waiting for them in their offices. In a nutshell, NGOs adjust their practices to South African ways of life. Third, NGOs try as much as possible to work with the government for efficiency purposes. Fourth, South African culture is more masculine thereby discriminates against women. By so doing, this practice leaves women with no choices just like Chinese believe choices are not precedence for most of us (Nisbett, 2003).

Cultural Effects

Hofstede in his cultures and organizations defines different levels of culture. He claims that every person has a national pattern of thinking and doing things that is acquired as an individual grows up. This pattern cannot be overruled by another pattern unless a person unlearns it first to learn the new cultural practices. However, the unlearning process is difficult for most individuals. Therefore, in most cases people tend to retain their cultural practices. The programming pattern starts right at the family then extends to the neighborhood and society, and it finally extends to the national level. The national level concerns itself with the way people in a country approach issues in a collective manner. The regional or ethnic level concerns itself with the region or ethnic group a person comes from. The gender level concerns itself with whether a person is a male or female. The generation level concerns itself with the period of birth, thereby draws a clear distinction between children and their parents as well as grandparents. The social class level concerns itself with opportunities one acquires in life. Finally, for the employed people, there is an organizational level that concerns itself with the way employees are programmed by their organizations (Hofstede, 2003).

In terms of dimensions, Hofstede claims that there are five dimensions of cultures. The first one is power distance that determines the extent at which people accept and expect power to be distributed unequally. The second one is individualism that determines the extent at which people in one culture are close or far from one another. The third one is masculinity that determines the extent at which gender roles are clearly distinct and defined in a culture. The fourth one is uncertainty avoidance that determines the extent at which cultures feel threatened by external forces that are unknown to them. The fifth dimension is the Confucian dynamism that determines the stability of the cultures (Hofstede, 2003).

South Africa has different cultures and eleven official languages. The eleven official languages demonstrate the cultural diversity in the country. However, at a national level these cultural diversities take the form of an African culture even though they might be slightly different at regional levels. This culture reflects high levels of collectivism and social grouping in the sense that South Africans prefer to work together as groups (Robbins et al., 2013). The said aspect has been instrumental in the formation of NGOs in the country because majority of the people have identified with them. It has also been instrumental in the daily running of NGOs because South Africans expect these organizations to collaborate with the government in delivering services.

On the other hand, South Africans believe in sharing responsibilities in families between men and women. In spite of this fact, South Africa is a highly masculine society. This means that men tend to run NGOs than women do. In addition, men tend to make decisions in most cases rather than allowing women to do so. This being the case, it is likely that men tend to run NGOs without necessarily involving women. At the same time, it is likely to find women holding lower positions in NGOs than men because men tend to control these organizations. After the country attained independence, this issue was evident in the sense that women were fighting for positions in NGOs (Spierenburg, 2004). In fact, women struggled to get their current positions in NGOs.

Political Influence

Political influence is also a significant factor that NGOs in SA have to contend with. Although one may think that little can be said about political influence in SA because the country attained independence in 1994, there is a lot to talk about for the last few years. Starting with the last days of apartheid, NGOs had massive political influence on many issues. In addition, they had great influences on the communities because the government had failed to provide services, especially to the black people that were the majority. Apart from this, majority of NGOs had become replacements for exiled political organizations in the country. Zeleza claims that the real nature of NGOs during this period had transformed to antigovernment because their antagonistic relationship with the government was defined by liberation movements and apartheid (Zeleza 2004). In fact, even though most of the NGOs like HIV/AIDS related ones had definite mandates, they all shared a common vision that sought to overthrow the apartheid government, but this vision was not defined clearly.

In spite of the fact that majority of the NGOs were influential politically before the new government came into power, majority of them weakened after the new government came into power. This had nothing to do with the new government because the government nurtured them, but the weakening had something to do with the fact that majority of their senior leaders became public servants. In addition, the weakening had something to do with meager funding these organizations received from their foreign funders. Nevertheless, the NGOs that survived the funding challenge and redefined their roles were able to rekindle and run normally. The HIV/AIDS organizations were among the organizations that survived the challenge because their roles were still intact (Mark, 2004). Consequently, these NGOs enjoyed a moment of good relationship with President Mandela’s government. The organizations helped in transforming the economy by providing services. However, political influence took another direction when Mbeki became the president. In particular, President Mbeki saw NGOs as non-parties that were interfering with political processes thereby sought to tame them.

Borrowing some concepts from the geography of thought, it can be argued that Mandela’s government sought to incorporate NGOs in providing services to the people just like the eastern concept would do in defining self. On the contrary, it can be argued that Mbeki’s government sought to sideline NGOs in providing services just like western concept would do in defining self. In other words, the Mandela’s government never cared much about the individualism while Mbeki’s government cared much about it (Nisbett, 2003). Nevertheless, the Mandela style of working with NGOs could not survive in an African set up.

Most of the NGOs in SA have their origins in other parts of the world with majority of them originating from populist and activist cultures (Ungar, & Liebenberg, 2009). Although this is good, especially for a country like South Africa, it poses a challenge to the way NGOs operate in the country. NGOs felt this impact during Mbeki’s government. Previously, Mandela’s government was lenient to these organizations because it condoned their divergent practices.

However, immediately President Mbeki came into power, he forcibly coerced these organizations to streamlining their practices into African cultures. The African culture as depicted in cultures and organizations is very responsive to external forces just like other cultures in the world. Accordingly, in terms of uncertainty avoidance, it reacts very fast to external forces. In this respect, Mbeki’s government was concerned about the way NGOs were operating in the country; thus, resulted to coercing these organizations to run their businesses in an African manner. An African manner in this case has a larger power distance that enables government to have control over almost everything in the country. For this reason, foreign and local NGOs must submit to the government by doing what the government expects them to do without failure. Otherwise, the government can shut down them as it has done in the past. With regard to this issue, since the end of apartheid era, NGOs prefer social movements to use formal channels, such as courts, parliament or media rather than relying on them. Accordingly, majority of the NGOs in SA currently delink themselves from social movements that are radical in nature (Dernberger, 2014). The NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDS have realized this and distanced themselves from politics.

Essentially, the South African government despite having a constitution that acknowledges the roles that NGOs play in South African economy has excessive control over these organizations. This is unlikely to change in the near future even though the western practices that have shorter power distances are very dominant in SA. As Hofstede claims, it is relatively difficult for South Africans to unlearn their cultural practices to embrace the western cultural practices (Hofstede, 2003).


This paper has critically evaluated geography of thought as well as cultures and organizations as it relates to NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. After a thoughtful analysis, it recommends the following.

  1. NGOs working in different parts of the world other than in their home countries such as USAID and UKAID should try as much as possible to adjust their organizational cultures to cultural practices in their host countries.
  2. To minimize cultural conflicts, NGOs should appreciate the fact that different cultures have different cultural practices that affect in one way or the other the way NGOs run their operations in different parts of the world.


Nisbett in a way concludes that trying to improve international understanding might not pay off as people expect because cultural practices in the world and mental programming of our minds are different. Accordingly, he asserts that conflicts are expected to arise when dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds. This argument acknowledges the fact that people from different cultural backgrounds are distinct and different. Hofstede, on the other hand, acknowledges the fact that people living in one country have a national culture that is different from other national cultures. He also acknowledges the fact that organizational cultures reflect national cultures. Based on this understanding, it would be paramount for NGOs coming from different parts of the world to acknowledge this fact rather than try to fight national cultures. This would minimize cultural conflicts that may affect organizational practices.

To a great extent, NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa have realized this and tried to change their practices. First, these organizations have realized the fact that they do not exist in vacuum. As a result, they acknowledge the fact that South African government has some control over them. In this respect, they do not violate what the government requires them to do in executing their mandates. Second, these organizations have aligned their operations to South African national culture and to some extent to regional and ethnic cultures in their areas of operations. Third, these organizations have embraced organizational cultural practices that are in line with South African national culture.


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Ellison, G., Parker, M., & Campbell, C. (2003). Learning from HIV/AIDS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Spierenburg, M. (2004). Culture, organization and management in South Africa: In search of equity. New York: Nova Science Publ.

Ungar, M., & Liebenberg, L. (2009). Researching resilience. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Zeleza, P. (2004). Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and Development in Africa. University of Pennsylvania Press.

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