The development sector sees competence and Europeanness exist at one end of a spectrum, with incompetence and Africanness placed at the other argues Ayesha Fakie
For many years, apartheid positioned South Africa as an international pariah. However, in the early nineties during Apartheid’s demise and against the backdrop of globalisation, South Africa’s borders opened up significantly. Americans and Europeans joined our workplaces, which were already sorely lacking in representation of people of colour, especially among the salaried and professional class.
As a result, across my career in South Africa, I have had quite a few opportunities to work with both European and American nationals. Many of these interactions were positive and engaging. I learned a lot and I trust that my European and American colleagues also returned home with an appreciation for a different way of living and working.
Additionally, I have made some pretty strong and enduring friendships with the people I’ve encountered along the way. As a woman of colour working in organisations that were considered “formerly white institutions”, this was especially interesting for me.
Workplaces in South Africa today are still very much white-dominated. More so, on the management side of things. Even today you can be the lone Indian, black or mixed race woman in the management department.
Naturally, these spaces come with many microaggressions surrounding issues of race, gender and culture. Not only did the Apartheid regime limit jobs for people of colour, it also reserved well-paying work for white people. For instance, although tertiary training for people of colour was allowed, it was mandated that you developed skills for ‘your kind’. Meaning, coloured and black teachers were groomed to work and teach in their respective communities.
Apartheid’s end meant that as people of colour, we started penetrating these workplaces in small numbers. Even though we were working in our home country, we still felt like fish out of water, navigating themes of Africanness, culture, identity, and ethnicity. “How can you be Muslim and Indian?” was not just a common question from white South Africans, but “what is ‘coloured’ and why are you speaking your oppressor’s language?”
An overriding theme I have experienced in working with colleagues from Europe or America, though, has been validating my competence. More specifically, validating that competence can be African.
An experience that stuck was when I worked with a Swiss national at a top South African university. I’ll call him Leon. He was quite gruff in style and often made jibes about “African time” and “this African attitude”. He’d often take it upon himself to consistently note all the problems he saw around Cape Town. Clearly, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I remember a colleague being livid once, telling me he had shared that he was here to help protect black women, ‘because their culture is harmful to them’. After one too many of these jabs I felt pressed to respond something about Nazism. He was not amused. It was childish of me but I did want to make a point about broad stereotypes and living in a foreign culture.
Leon always mentioned how impressed he was with the team I managed. “You ladies are really good you, know. I’m surprised!” I wondered what exactly I should take away. We did the work as requested and delivered it. Why the surprise?
I worked with Leon more and more. While his style was frustrating for an Indian woman, I (had to) put my views aside for the most part. One day, in a chat in the parking lot as we were heading home, I remember him sharing his views about working in South Africa, and South Africans in general. We amiably went on until he complimented my work ethic.
“The way you are, Ayesha, you’re really not South African, you’re more Swiss!” he exclaimed. ”The way you work, the way you get things done, how you are – that’s not very South African. Completely Swiss! You should consider working there.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond while maintaining a functional working relationship.
“No, I am South African. Those things don’t make me Swiss. The good things you see about South Africans does not mean they are not-South African qualities.”
We argued for a while until I realised there was no point engaging further, I left, muttering my disagreement saying I’m not there to educate him.
The idea that competence in the workplace, is not African is insulting. Black, brown, coloured, white South Africans, and the rest of the world need to lose this idea that ‘African’ is inherently bad.
This happened a good many years ago yet it sticks with me. I know I am not alone. Over my career I have found many people of colour speak of similar experiences – that people are surprised by our competence, that it’s astonishing when we know how to do what we need to do. This is particularly pertinent for women of colour.
South African society remains stratified and positions of power often occupied by white men. Patronising comment’s like Leon’s reflect the development industry’s attitudes towards working African women and women of colour which leave us locked out of management roles where we are sorely needed.
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Ayesha Fakie lives and works in Cape Town. Her career focused on higher education and now civil society working toward greater inclusion. She came of age during the fall of Apartheid and is committed to helping dismantle racialised poverty and unemployment –and interrogating hidden privilege.
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