Upward mobility and salad forks in South Africa

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Florence Makwakwa ponders the dazzling array of crystal glasses, silver cutlery, and gold-rimmed bowls that are laid out before her at South Africa's grooming school for the black elite.

She takes a deep breath and begins Etiquette Lesson No. 1: How to Sip Soup.

"The correct way is to tilt the bowl," instructs coach Tselane Tambo, encouraging the timid Ms. Makwakwa to give it a try. "You always scoop away from yourself.... That's it. Get a good spoonful."

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Ms. Makwakwa dribbles, ever so slightly, but her coach beams: "Congratulations!"

The Tselane Tambo Grooming School is the spiffiest sign of this country's changing times.In the old South Africa, Oliver Tambo was a famed revolutionary who fought apartheid.

Now his 30-something daughter is renowned for teaching upwardly mobile blacks, so-called "buppies," how to escape the misery of making socially fatal faux pas.

"Some people may think it is frivolous," says Ms. Tambo. "But these things are important to people in society.... Like pouring soup rather than slurping it in your mouth."

"We fought our struggle and we won. Now we are moving forward to be part of the rest of the world."

For decades, apartheid barred South Africa's black majority from business and ensured most qualified for only menial jobs. But six years of democratic rule has produced a small cadre of wealthy blacks - and Tambo's business is to prepare them for the newly opened world of high fashion, fine dining and corporate schmooze fests.

Makwakwa, a 30-something executive at Coca Cola South Africa, is grateful for the lessons. Like many buppies, she has finally taken her rightful seat at a boardroom table. Now she wants to learn how best to take her seat at a dining-room table.

"Sometimes it is actually mind-boggling when you see all those forks," says Makwakwa. "Most Africans come from a poor background. You are just used to the village ways."

"As you climb up the corporate ladder, you are required to go to dinners and entertain.... I think there is an urgent need for this grooming school. It will help a lot of African people."

South Africa's very own Miss Manners not only teaches table etiquette at the Tambo family's Johannesburg mansion, she instructs classes of business clients in everything from firm hand shakes and phone manners to deportment and how to dress for success.

She herself is the very picture of well-groomed elitism. Tambo is usually seen in flowing blouses, designer sunglasses, a diamond choker, stylish hair extensions, and screaming pink nail polish. She has the good humor to admit it takes a bit of a high-society snob to do her job - and that she is oh, so suited for the task.

While her beloved father was leader of the African National Congress in exile, Tambo was born in Britain, polished in the best boarding schools, and trained in all the essentials of socialite living: how to take offa pair of little white gloves, butter a bun, and get out of a car in a short skirt.

When she returned to South Africa in 1990, she found social skills to be sadly lacking. Once, she attended a function in the executive dining room of a blue-chip company and - horror of horrors: "I was given a fruit fork to eat my salad."

"I just thought: Kaaaa-ching!" Her nose wrinkles at the very thought.

But, in a country where half the people are still living below the poverty line, some question the arrival ofa bourgeois exile who puts so much focus on which fork is for what food. Why does she insist on teaching Western rules of etiquette, rather than trying to develop a new brand of African corporate culture?

"Corporate culture doesn't have to be Western. But right now it is."In African culture, for example, it is a sign of respect not to look your elder in the eyes. "In the corporate world, that means you are shifty. It doesn't work."

Hundreds have lined up to take her grooming classes, including newly elected politicians, TV personalities, business executives, and a nephew of former President Nelson Mandela.

Loyiso Mugdlwa was raised in a rural area, herding sheep in a village before he moved in with his famous aunt, Winnie Mandela, during the early 1990s. "We grew up in a culture of struggle and revolution," says the 20-something affirmative-action consultant.

"In revolutionary politics, you are used to breaking the law to get what you want. You are used to doing things in a casual manner." Wearing business suits, addressing corporate boards, going to restaurants - "those were foreign concepts to a black man."

But thanks to Tambo, Mugdlwa has upgraded his clothes, learned the importance of eye contact, and even gets regular facials to take care of his skin. And when he threw a catered dinner party for 16, including first lady Zanele Mbeki, he knew just what to do: present his guest of honor with a small gift, use real linen napkins, and pay attention to the seating plan.

But Tambo is also conscious of the lower classes. She does "outreach" work in township schools, delivering motivation lectures that encourage underprivileged black kids to aim for high-powered corporate jobs. And, at a recent session with private health-care workers - almost all of them African women from rural backgrounds - Tambo gave lessons in how to "walk with purpose," project confidence, do hair, and wear makeup.

"We want to give them self-esteem," explains Gizelle Van der Merwe, owner of Nido, the private health-care company. "And even just a little lipstick can make you feel good about yourself."

Patricia Neswiswa, a young home-care worker, joined dozens of others in - literally - singing songs of praise for Tambo at the end of a make-over session. "I think it is excellent," she gushed.

Makwakwa and Mugdlwa join in the chorus.

"We've got the country back," says Mugdlwa. "The whole world is looking at us. We need to know how to do these things right."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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