The reason I had found myself in South Africa in the first place was entirely related to work. I never had a burning desire to move there. I however was looking to change fields and lo and behold, I was given a shot in South Africa, even if I had no experience. At that point in my life, I had been consumed with the idea of purpose and I was convinced that I would find meaning in life if my work was purposeful. I took a pay cut and left for what some thought was less lucrative work, all in the spirit of finding my purpose. And so, at that time, work was my everything. Hard work had never scared me, in fact, if anything, it has often been my safe space. I had found that first school, and then work, were places where I could most influence the outcomes if I put in the time and effort – unlike other aspects of my life.
And those were really my naïve days. I would learn eventually that it most certainly was not always the case. You see, for the longest time, I thought it was my hard work that was paying off, when in fact, there were other factors too. It could have been my skin colour, the languages I spoke, my accent, my views on the world through my travels... It could have anything related to who I was and the privilege I enjoyed. But I had no idea. And one day, overnight, this privilege was taken away.
All that changed is an African woman in her fifties was one day appointed as our boss. The team Futhi inherited didn’t look much like her – while the rest of the country did. What this woman had to go through, having lived through apartheid and having the fight the injustice of the workplace had been no small feat. I know this not because I know her personal story, but because it must have been, given the way the world works, especially as a black woman in South Africa. So in an attempt to fix what was terribly wrong, we found that in some ways, our team members were being replaced increasingly by African women.
And so herein, suddenly, I found myself jumping and cheering and screaming and working hard, and my ideas, enthusiasm and work were completely overlooked. Futhi had no interest in what I had to offer. In fact, quite simply, I was yet another privileged team member whose job needed to be rightfully allocated to local black talent. I will hastily add that by the end of the two years that Futhi and I worked together, she eventually respected me as a professional and even more than once went out on a limb to stand up for me. As much as I can now write about it in a zen manner, the first months were incredibly rocky and probably the most difficult thing that I experienced. At the time, I felt completely defeated and lost all my confidence. My whole outlook on my purpose in life being lived through work was shaken (may I say, in hindsight, thankfully so). I questioned my decision to leave my previous career and my home country. For personal reasons mostly related to immigration and my business school enrolment, I decided to stick it out for at least two years.
When things had been rough at previous points in my life, I had often had this dream of being a bartender on an idyllic beach. I had wondered what was so appealing in this picture and had thought that perhaps it was the simplicity of the picture, of doing a task at hand, on repeat, without much responsibility, and free from complex political environment. And so, in order to cope, I resigned myself to ‘being a bartender’ at work. I tried my best to do what I could with what I had, suppressing my ambition and big dreams and talking myself into being content by doing simple things on repeat, without recognition. It was one of the hardest lessons to learn at the time.
And it is one that I will never forget. On many such days, as I watched my responsibilities being given to others and received employee emails about programmes I had previously run, my thoughts went to some people I knew. I remembered their resilience to find contentment, their resignation to life as it was, and also, a decision to not hope, as hope in the midst of hopelessness can feel so painful. It was a pain that I had never experienced before. And it was the beginning of my realisation at how complicit I had been in spreading this pain to others before, simply by having been blind to my own privilege. I thought about the angry over-the-top reaction of a particular colleague, who I had thought could use a serious dose to EQ, when really, looking back, it was a reaction to years of injustice that no one else could see. I started to understand the beliefs one has about themselves when our efforts go in vain. In short, this experience held a mirror to my face and what I saw in the picture is one I will never forget.
Why exactly Futhi ended up standing up for me in the end, I am not sure. Partly, I would like to think that it was my work that spoke for itself. But for a big part, I also think it was the fact that swallowed my pride. Suddenly, I succumbed to Futhi, and accepted whatever fate she wanted for me. It was the fact that I put my career in her hands that made her feel responsible. It was a stark difference to how I experienced the responsibility of leaders to their team in the States. There, one gave opportunity and recognition to others because they had done something to deserve it, and because one saw the potential. Aside that, you’re on your own. But this is not how it works everywhere in the world. In some places, leaders take care of those who depend on them – whether they deserved it or not - because if you don’t, they will be eaten by the wolves. Whether it was fair or unfair to everybody in the equation is really besides the point. It’s just your job to look out for your own.