Nine-month reflection on living and working in Scotland after almost five decades in South Africa

By Marcus Coetzee, 16 August 2022.

Here are some reflections that I wrote at a local coffee shop while contemplating the differences between Scotland and South Africa.

I moved from Cape Town in South Africa to Paisley in Scotland in November 2021. Paisley is a large town near Glasgow.

I am a management consultant who helps charities and social enterprises to improve their strategies. Since I have been here in Scotland, I have primarily worked with Community Enterprise and Imani Development who both do excellent work. Most of my projects have been focused on Scotland, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya and Malawi.

Here are fourteen observations about Scotland that stand out as I write this article.

1. Poverty exists and is on people’s minds, but the nature and incidence of poverty is very different from that in developing countries. My attempts to compare poverty levels between South Africa and Scotland have been poorly received so I no longer attempt this. The United Kingdom has much greater resources to deploy to help reduce poverty. However, this is a contentious issue in Scotland. Many locals seem to believe that the UK central government could do more to help reduce poverty in Scotland.

2. Scotland is a relatively homogeneous society and lacks some of the vibrant diversity of races and cultures that I enjoy about South Africa. But on the other hand, everyone seems mindful about equality and being fair to minority groups. For example, I regularly see people with disabilities included in social activities and able to move around the city independently. This is in stark contrast to South Africa where such people struggle to access services and participate in society. The equality laws and guidelines for charities in the UK are explicit about not discriminating on the basis of race, skin colour, religion, disability and a host of other variables, including against people associated with those who have these characteristics. I have heard many locals say that they always welcome outsiders and minorities provided they adhere to the golden rule of, “Don’t be a dick!”

3. Scottish summers are frequently indistinguishable from Cape Town winters, but everyone here up North knows it’s summer and dresses accordingly. Fortunately, I’ve adapted somewhat and started to wear summer clothing and become excited about the weather when the temperature hits 20 degrees Celsius and the sun is shining.

4. There seems to be a much higher level of overall trust between people in Paisley and Glasgow compared with how things are in South Africa. Everyone seems friendly and helpful, even to strangers. While some of these traits might be cultural, I also suspect that the relatively safe environment plays an important role in enabling these behaviours. Many of the areas that I’ve visited have a reputation for being ‘rough’ (a common euphemism for a dangerous and unpleasant area) but this is clearly not by South African standards. The town where I live also has a reputation for being rough though things have obviously improved tremendously. I’ve heard locals attribute this lasting reputation to an episode of a popular documentary series in 1995 which focused on Paisley and had the ominous title of “Drug Rule”. However, a Glaswegian colleague once remarked that, “while the social fabric here can sometimes be rough, it is pretty damn solid, and you can trust people to have your back in a crisis.”

5. The overall level of education is high, and the ability to write and communicate clearly seems more commonplace. My ability to write simply and clearly is less distinct here in Scotland. Even government policies seem to be surprisingly accessible with helpful online guides. The same applies to those instructions that come with medicines. It’s almost like the authors genuinely want people to understand them. This is a real pleasure to experience. I will no longer need to write articles that help organisations to navigate government policies as they can simply visit the websites themselves.

6. There is a massive shift towards communities taking ownership of their own well-being, which is an exciting but contentious trend since there are mixed views on whether this should be necessary. Scottish charities and social enterprises are doing pioneering work in the field of community-owned businesses, buildings and other assets ranging from ferries to through to nature reserves. I regularly engage with concepts like ‘community enterprises’, ‘community-asset transfer’, ‘community ownership’, ‘community shares’ and ‘community wealth building’. The emphasis on ‘community’ is clear.

7. Compared to what I’m accustomed to, there is an abundant, even utopian, level of support from government and charities for organisations that want to do some good in Scotland. There is even a dedicated industry body for social enterprises called Social Enterprise Scotland, which receives some government funding. This is so refreshing after the scarcity that exists in Africa and my failed attempts to help establish an industry body for social enterprises due to a lack of available funding and government support.

8. I’ve encountered plenty of evidence that suggests that the Scottish government actively supports the work of charities and social enterprises through policy, funding and advice, though this might be delegated to suitable intermediaries. Government officials seem willing to be interviewed as key informants and appear to support charities and their events. For example, I’ve already spoken with several local councillors, which would not be achievable in South Africa.

9. Volunteering seems endemic in Scotland. The Scottish Household Survey in 2018 estimated that 26% of adults provided unpaid help to groups, clubs or organisations in the last 12 months. Volunteers are a cornerstone of many charities and social enterprises. I regularly chat with people at my local gym and coffee shops who share their volunteer activities once they learn what I do for a living. This means that there are a lot of people willing to cooperate to improve things, possibly because they feel that they can actually make a difference. However, there is also a debate of whether volunteers (e.g. involuntary carers) are doing the work of the government and should be remunerated accordingly.

10. Scotland seems to have a much more egalitarian society than in South Africa, which is a pleasure to experience. The Gini Coefficient in the UK is 34.8% compared with South Africa’s 63% which is among the highest in the world. There are a multitude of reasons including the culture, economic history, and government policy for why this is so. The ‘distance’ between a factory worker or shop assistant versus a professional appears to be minimal compared with what I’m used to. However, I do recognise that my experiences are primarily based on living in Paisley which has a rich history of political radicalism including trade unions, workers’ rights, and women’s suffrage.

11. Projects tend to move forward much more steadily and intentionally (and frequently more slowly) than what I’m accustomed to in South Africa, where things seem much more frenetic and urgent and where everything is a critical emergency that must be done immediately. I’m still adjusting to this new tempo where I need to work fewer nights and weekends. The Scottish seem very committed to maintaining work-life balance and ensuring that everyone has been properly consulted, hence this phenomenon.

12. The UK has some very strict and non-negotiable bureaucratic channels that work well if one operates within the lines. For example, without proof of a physical address, a local bank account with a credit record, and local work history, it is very difficult to slot into a range of processes that just seem to expect one to have it. It took me about six months to get some of these basics in place. I have heard several people who work with the homeless, or who run virtual offices, complain about these requirements.

13. The media space is very different, and people seem to be anxious about different issues. In South Africa, the media was concerned with issues such as abject poverty, infrastructure collapse, high unemployment, rampant violent crime, political corruption, xenophobia, political and economic instability. Here the space is filled with issues such as the cost-of-living crisis, increasing fuel and gas prices, European geopolitics, mental health and substance abuse, staff shortages, supply chain problems, global warming, Scottish independence, and the politics of the UK central government. There is still plenty for people to worry about.

14. In South Africa, I needed to maintain a broad set of skills so that I could pursue all the opportunities that came my way. This was the only way I could attain sufficient work to survive. In contrast, the third sector here in Scotland (and more broadly in the UK) seems to be much more specialised and saturated with experienced consultants. Therefore I have needed to position myself much more narrowly and focus exclusively on my strategy work to stand out and get ahead.

In conclusion, I am thoroughly enjoying living and working in Scotland. It is an adventure where I have been on a steep learning curve. It has admittedly been very hard to move to a new country at this stage in my life and let go of so much of what I had built in South Africa. But this was clearly the right next step for me, so I will proceed to move forward with gratitude and enthusiasm and keep you all updated.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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