TIPPING IN (SOUTHERN) AFRICA: MY THOUGHTS
The whole culture of tipping gives me anxiety. It turns what could be a pleasant experience into one where you have to battle feelings of guilt, obligation, uncertainty, and pressure - especially coming from Australia where ‘tipping’ means rounding to the nearest dollar or dumping your unwanted shrapnel in the jar next to the till at your favourite cafe.
I’ve travelled through Europe and Asia and America, but never have I felt the pressure to tip more strongly than in Africa - people ask for tips for EVERYTHING (they even do things you don’t WANT them to do, and then ask you to tip them for it) - and it does my head in.
So far, these are my general thoughts on the tipping culture here in Africa, based entirely on my own naive ideas and experience:
Thought 1: Am I paying someone’s wage? In Australia, if I get great service in a cafe or restaurant, I’m inclined to give about a 10% tip at the end of my meal. However, I do this knowing that this tip goes to the cafe/restaurant, not the individual staff member. This is ok, because I know that staff member should be getting paid a minimum wage for the hours of work that he/she is doing, and most likely, my tip will get shared amongst the staff or put in a ‘staff function’ fund.
In the places I have visited in Africa, however, there is no minimum wage, I have no idea how many hours these people work, how much (or if) they get paid, and how many people they have in their family that they trying to support. A few wait staff that I’ve spoken to have had to save up almost a month’s wages just to buy a mandatory uniform. The generally expected tip is a couple of dollars or 10%, but I feel so torn because on the one hand I want to empty my wallet for them, and on the other, I also want to refuse to support a system that does not look after their workers, and will not need to as long as they can survive (however poorly) on minimum tips. Of course, the nasty cycle of low pay justifying tips and tips justifying low pay isn’t unique to Africa, and it isn’t limited to the hospitality industry, but in Africa I’ve felt more of a sad sense of desperation that leads to being pressured to give a tip for anything and everything.
Thought 2: What about the people I DON’T see? The tipping culture seems to generate inequality, whereby people that are working just as hard behind the scenes are not getting paid proportionately simply because they are not coming into contact with consumers. A good example of how this could be rectified is the lodge we stayed at near Kruger National Park called Sabie River Bush Lodge. This was the first place in Africa I discovered that actively discouraged tipping. On the hotel information they explained that there were many behind-the-scenes staff who worked tirelessly to make our stay enjoyable, and it was true. The cleaners left our ‘tent’ impeccably clean, the grounds were stunning, and every morning when we got to our car ready to re-enter the dusty national park, some fairy godmother had washed it, so our windows were sparkling clear, ready for game-viewing. Sabie River asked that we not tip individual staff members (such as the guy who brought us drinks, or took our luggage to our tent) and instead, if we were pleased with our stay, offer a tip upon checkout which would be distributed EQUALLY to ALL STAFF. Not only did this make our stay less stressful (no more worrying about who to tip, when, or how much) but I think it was fair to all staff and certainly they all appeared very happy to work there.
Thought 3: Is it kind of screwing with the economy? Ok, so a couple of dollars every time we eat out or get a tour or use some service or other isn’t that big of a deal - in fact, most tourists could afford to tip a bit more. In FACT, some tourists pride themselves on generous tipping, thinking that they are helping those less fortunate than themselves. However, this is causing an imbalance in the local economy. There are a bunch of articles about this, and they actually make very interesting reading, but I want to quote a simple example from expertafrica.com that explains the problems that excessive tipping (or in fact, the whole emphasis on tipping in general) is causing in Africa (and probably other places): “Consider the work of a senior park ranger. To achieve this status requires a high level of education and knowledge, as well as several years’ experience in different national parks. If done properly, this is a very important role, and a fair wage is paid for the job, but government-employed rangers aren’t usually top earners. Yet both the parks and their visitors benefit if educated and competent people are appointed to this kind of post. Conversely, a safari camp assistant, who helps out generally and perhaps carries bags for guests, is also very necessary. Yet s/he doesn’t need to be so educated, or to have as much experience as a ranger, and s/he certainly won’t have the same level of responsibility or the same salary. So consider the effect if such a worker gets massive tips – totalling, say, US$500 a month. If that happens, there’s a very real possibility that s/he will end up earning more than the park’s ranger. In this case, the local balance of responsibility and remuneration is distorted by the tips – which are too high. If this happened too often, it would remove the incentive for a ranger to work harder and take on more responsibility – and could well see park rangers giving up their jobs to become camp assistants, to the detriment of the park and its visitors.”
Thought 4: Do these people really deserve tips? In the end, with all the pressure to tip, and the harassment that can result after an inadequate or non-existent tip, I get pretty cranky. I don’t get cranky because of the money, and I don’t get cranky because of the anxiety it causes, but I get cranky because these people deserve to earn decent wages. They deserve to be able to support themselves and their families by working hard, and not rely on scams or underhanded tactics to desperately squeeze a couple of dollars from as many tourists as they can. The stark contrast between rich and poor in the African countries I have visited has blown my mind - and I never considered myself ignorant of such things. People work hard for tips, they work hard to scam (learn more about hilarious scams in Zanzibar here), or they hardly work at all and depend on crime for survival, and at the end of the day I find that I can’t really blame them, when they exist in a system that won’t look after them and makes it virtually impossible to do otherwise.