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Upward mobility and salad forks in South Africa

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2000


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.

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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."

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.