Thursday, 1 January 2015

Part 1 - Unspoken Lessons of Corporate South Africa (HOW IT ALL STARTED)

In May 2002, I arrived at work for the first time, not knowing what to expect, but incredibly excited about the fact that my career had finally kicked off and I was well on my way to success where I would make “the millions”. Having held one or two “odd jobs” while in university, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the big company signage that greeted me at reception, the mere posh appearance of my desk, the lighting, the phones and most notably the many faces that surrounded me; giving me a sense of incredible privilege. Like most black people, I silently thought to myself... “first black guy to…” I remember phoning my parents that evening and they were oozing with pride as they expressed their overwhelming happiness -or maybe relief- at the fact that someone had finally decided to hire their son. Did I worry them that much I thought? In order to keep their moment of pride alive, I decided to omit one minor detail… the fact that I was working for virtually nothing more than transport money and experience; something I would eventually learn means a lot in the corporate environment.

With the hope that my story will inspire someone to take a slightly different path, avoid some of the mistakes that I made, and become a far bigger success than I have been, I decided to document some of the lessons I have learnt in the corporate world over the years. This is the first of a series of 4 blogs, which I will post over the next three months.

Despite my first job being in a small company of about 10 people, I quickly got to learn that enjoyment of life and success in Corporate South Africa is determined by who you align yourself with, bearing in mind that this process is one that needs to happen within one’s first 3 months in a job. Although most people walk in being neutral, the wise quickly find “alliance partners” and begin to build a power base. Considering the fact that I was the only black guy among the office staff, Henry, the driver and Mildred our tea lady (not their real names); who were both wonderful elderly black folk took it upon themselves to induct and guide me through a few basics; kind of, reminding me at each turn how lucky I was to be working with these super humans. Obviously being cultured and respectful to my elders, I followed their lead and it wasn’t too long before I lost every ounce of bargaining power that I had walked in with and was inches away from being asked to make the odd cup of tea. Did Henry and Mildred have any clue that they were doing me a disservice despite their good intentions? I guess not.

My lesson here was simple: Your networks will make or break your career.

The next lesson was perhaps the most interesting, but most difficult, to accept. Having spent a few years in university learning to become a high flying corporate professional, it eventually dawned on me that the degree I had worked so hard to get, meant very little beyond that hand shake on the day I accepted the job. I transitioned into what I call “the great depression” the day I had a look at the organogram and realized that, despite my qualifications, I had given new meaning to the cliché “starting at the bottom”. Refusing to learn this lesson, I took my degree with me and joined another company where once again I got a hand shake and was shown my desk. I couldn’t quite understand how these mere mortals were refusing to recognize the greatness that stood before them, until I realized that very few people actually understand the value that a degree adds to the thinking capacity of an individual. Most importantly though, I also realized just how poorly university students are bridged over into the corporate world and are allowed to go into it with delusions of changing the world, when in reality, they are perceived to be cheap labour willing to do anything.

My lesson here? Education is simply an indicator that you have the ability to learn and not a guarantee that you will perform. Don’t exaggerate it’s importance.

Two years into my career and at the tender age of 24, I was handed an opportunity of a lifetime; an opportunity to join the management team of a major bank. Excited about the salary and the prospect of buying myself a real car for a change, I went in gun’s blazing but very ill prepared on two fronts. Firstly, I had never managed people before and secondly, the number of hours in a day suddenly became a game changer! My first day at work was particularly entertaining. Although my contract stated that I was required to work the conventional 8 to 4, I had previously learnt that managing perceptions was an important part of corporate survival. In this case, the application of my learning was simple: “Do not be the first one to get up and go home on your first day on the job unless you are itching to create some office gossip”. Knowing this, like a good employee, I sat and waited for an indicator. 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock and no one was moving or even looking bothered. Eventually at about 6:30, the office joker got up and said “cheers everyone” to a few chuckles in response. Ironically, this was the person I soon learnt I would be replacing (no pressure). I eventually made it home that day after 8 pm and from that moment on; I knew I had a long two years of real work ahead of me.

My lesson here? Unless you are the new CEO, read the environment and adapt quickly. It’s normally very difficult to recover from a poor first impression.

My most valuable lessons in this job however, were learnt in an area that defined who I became as a manager; People Management. This will be covered in part two of this series of blogs, in which I will share specific instances that I now consider missed opportunities.

I would appreciate any comments and additional lessons that you too have learnt in your career as I build on this blog. 

- Amasi Mwela

Monday, 15 December 2014

Part 2 - Unspoken Lessons of Corporate South Africa (PEOPLE MANAGEMENT)

 In Part 1 of this four part series of blogs, I spoke briefly about some of the lessons I learnt in the early days of my career as a young professional entering the corporate world. In this blog, I focus on one aspect that in many respects, shaped who I became as a manager; people management.

My original view of people management was that of superior managing subordinates, telling them what to do, and they duly obliging with the instructions that the good boss had given. Upon being given my first opportunity at managerial level, I soon came to realise that this view was far removed from reality. The many lessons I learnt in this area of management fall into three main categories: Managing Peers, Managing Superiors and Managing Subordinates; this being the order in which I learnt them.

As the office joker had stood up at 6:30 pm that day and said “cheers everyone” to the ringing sounds of chuckles, I had taken time to observe where the loudest chuckles and comments were coming from, realising very quickly that these would possibly be my biggest allies or my worst enemies, depending on how I played my cards. In the group of “chucklers” was Bobby (not his real name) who had been in the company for more than 15 years, had worked with the boss for many years, and had become his biggest praise singer. Although Bobby and I were at the same level, I knew at this point that he had a little more influence than I did, so I decided to befriend him. Although I couldn’t stand the man, and “sucking up” was not really my style, it seemed to have worked for Bobby, and I figured I needed to learn a few things from him. The lesson here would fall under the category that I call managing peers. I quickly found a way of making Bobby feel like he was “the man” and that I could learn a lot from him. In actual fact though, I was trying to determine what kind of person the boss was and how I could get into his good books, something that the office joker had obviously failed to do and consequently got fired. Bobby, of course, was not clever enough to figure this out. After all, he had worked for the same guy for 15 years with minimal progress, very little recognition and yet… he seemed happy.

The lesson here? If you appear to be a threat to your peers too early in a new job, you will struggle to get information critical for your survival. Be humble and pretend to learn even that which you know. I call this the "ahhhhh, ohhhh, really?" phase”

Once I had determined the boss’ preferences (thank you Bobby), I slowly began to test the waters and was I surprised at how accurate Bobby was. The man was very particular about everything and was a typical Chartered Accountant. All reports submitted to him for instance, had to be in Arial font, size 11, in blue and justified. My initial thoughts were that this was silly and I deliberately submitted my first report contrary to specification. The outburst that I got in response implied that this was a big part of this guy’s life, almost an obsession… silly? Maybe, but this didn’t change one major fact; he was the boss.

Quick lesson here. Your opinion most likely begins to count at the point when you make the boss feel like "the boss". Until then, good luck!

I then decided to take all this to the next level. Having been an Arsenal fan for many years, I decided to convert to Manchester United for work purposes. Why? Because the boss was a real die-hard Man Utd fan. Unlike Bobby who knew very little about soccer, I knew all the players, watched every match, knew every time there was a new kit launched (and occasionally bought him a fake one from the flea market) and was a keen follower of all Man Utd transfer rumours. The day Ruud van Nisterlrooy left Man Utd for Real Madrid, I had the privilege of giving the breaking news to the boss, something that bought me many favours during my time in this job. It wasn’t long before all Monday morning match reviews were conducted at my desk and not Bobby’s.

Although there are many lessons that came out of this, a category I call managing superiors, one major lesson here was this. Understand what things are important to your boss and provide them when and how s/he wants. Time spent fighting the system is time wasted.
The second lesson? Make a real effort to connect with your boss at a level beyond work. This is not to say go to their house every weekend, but rather find (or make up) what you have in common and use it. It's very difficult for one Man Utd fan to fire another.

The final category is managing subordinates, which came with many more challenges and lessons than I had anticipated. On my first day at work, I was introduced to the team that I was to manage and the first thing that stood out was the fact that I was much younger than everyone else in the team. So obvious was this, that one of the staff members, a middle aged black lady called Duduzile (not her real name), accidentally said aloud, “Haibo… but he’s so young” something I instantly took a mental note of and marked the staff member as trouble (my first mistake). Based on this interaction, my inexperience led me to “lay down the law” in my inaugural staff meeting. My approach was one of, “There is a new Sheriff in town and this is how things will be done from today” (my second mistake).

The weeks and months that followed were very unpleasant, having failed to generate the support and respect of my team early on. The entire team seemed to listen to Duduzile and she seemingly had more influence than I did. Whenever she decided to stir up trouble, I felt it like a bad rash. Little did I know that Duduzile had applied for my job and was declined, so she obviously had something to gain by me failing. Unwilling to concede defeat and portraying all the characteristics of a young foolish manager, I made this battle personal and this just made things worse (my third mistake). The entire team lost respect for me and whatever I said was questioned. I had become so predictable that I lost authority and the performance of the team rapidly went south. Bobby, on the other hand, was enjoying watching this soap opera and fuelling the fire with the boss, in order to get his position back as number one sucker, which I had now taken from him.

Desperate to make things work, I decided to start asking every person that was willing to listen what they thought I should do (fourth mistake). The information I shared with these “trusted colleagues” some of whom were fellow managers, miraculously found itself onto my boss’ desk. I now looked totally incompetent! Bobby, at this point, was on top of his game and I was at an all-time low. My team was in tatters and I had lost control completely.

It was time to recover. I set up a meeting with my boss, conceded that I needed some help, and thanks to our Man Utd connection, he was very supportive, although in the beginning he found my problems hilarious. I further proceeded to get a mentor within the business, and another external one - a business owner - both of whom I knew would be objective and unbiased towards either myself or my team.

In this journey, I learnt the following simple lessons:

1. Opposition to your leadership may be a cry for something else. Find out who is who in your team and their history in the Organisation. There might be underlying factors which you may need to be aware of, and manage. (Duduzile had unsuccessfully applied for my job and I should have managed this better)

2. The day your team learns to predict you as a manager is the day you lose control. Vary your responses and control your reactions. If you make all your buttons visible, they will press them.

3. Learn to appear in control even when deep down you have no idea what you're doing. People buy into posture and confidence.

4. Don’t be afraid to make decisions no matter how unpopular. People can see indecision and will exploit it.

5. Deal with the small matters of discipline and the big things won't happen... Or, at least, will happen less.

6. Read and understand internal policies and procedures, especially those that relate to staff management. Simple as this may sound, I have seen many managers get caught off-guard in this area. Like every good sports fan, your staff know exactly what you should be doing and will exploit ignorance.

7. Influence, whether good or bad, is a sign of leadership potential. Identify this in specific members of your team and attempt to develop it, rather than fight it, bearing in mind that this requires a lot of patience. Where this fails, discipline decisively.

8. A new manager normally comes in to make his/her mark and is keen to make changes. Ill informed changes often lead to costly mistakes. Observe and learn the status quo before attempting any fixes.

9. There is a lot to be learnt from subordinates if you create a culture where people feel free to speak up and challenge your decisions. Managers who over-value their own significance create their own downfall.

10. Consistently hold each individual team member accountable for their deliverables and be willing to guide, coach and mentor where required. Resist the temptation to take over or reassign undelivered or inferior work as this erodes accountability.

I spent almost three years in that organisation, and by the time I left, I had gone from incompetent young man to Manager of the Year. At this point, I knew it was time to leave with all the valuable lessons I had learnt and seek a new challenge before Bobby thought up a new strategy. Duduzile, on the other hand, became my biggest supporter and was ready to take over my job when I left; which she deservingly did.

My final lesson, in conclusion. I often hear young hot headed professionals say one thing… ”I don't suck up to anyone” Well, I ask you with tears in my eyes (sardonism): Where exactly has that attitude got you? Unhappy? Complaining? Victimised? An outcast? Under paid? Never promoted?My view: Assuming performance is a given, be it with your peers, superiors or subordinates, learning to brush egos will give you a far smoother ride in corporate. That said, do not become a pushover. Those get used and never respected. Have an opinion!

In my next blog, I discuss diversity management and office politics as well as the lessons I have learnt in this regard.

I would appreciate any comments and additional lessons that you too have learnt in your career as I build on this blog.

- Amasi Mwela

Monday, 8 December 2014

Part 3 - Unspoken Lessons of Corporate South Africa (OFFICE POLITICS)

Office politics is one of those things that we all wish didn’t exist. Unfortunately however, where there are more than two people in one place, you are guaranteed to have them. Better still, in an organisation where human nature demands competition for position and perceived success, the intensity of these politics can move one to breaking point. The purpose of Part 3 of this blogging series is to provide a few insights that I have gathered in my career which will assist you to navigate your way around these politics with minimal bruising. That said, I must caution you that there is no silver bullet approach to this and mention that the strength of a leader lies within knowing what tools to use from what’s available as situations arise.

My first real encounter with office politics was in the second company that I worked for. Having come from a very small family type organisation, I entered real corporate and for the first time in my career, I learnt a few bad habits that we have all come to accept as normal. These include doing stupid things like sending emails to the person sitting right next to you just in case they point the finger at you tomorrow, speaking up in meetings even when you are talking rubbish just so you appear clever, nodding with conviction when the boss speaks and faces your direction in a meeting even if you’re actually wondering what will happen in the next episode of Generations, leaving your jacket on your chair the previous day so that the boss thinks you’re in even if you arrive an hour later, walking around with a laptop in order to look busy and the classic, being on the internet looking for jobs the whole day and having a spread sheet in the background that you could flick onto your screen (using Alt & Tab) when the boss walks past… If you can relate to any of these things, you too are sick.

The irony of corporate politics is that despite the fact that no one enjoys it, in a bid to survive and gain acceptance, we fall into the system and religiously practice these norms knowing that they are very counterproductive and do not get any company closer to achieving its strategic objectives.

In this organisation, I had been hired to join a small finance department of 3 people, one of whom was the Financial Manager, a lady called Pinky (my boss). Virtually every second day, Pinky would remind me and my other colleague how important her job was and how the two of us would never cope at her level. I remember a day when she went as far as to say, we are so lucky that she was there to protect us from all the politics… This statement offended me to a point, and definitely irritated my colleague, but most importantly, it got me thinking what exactly she meant. Am I incompetent? If so, she hired me... What does that make her? Am I not ready? Will I ever be ready? Is she threatened by me? Does she have race issues? I could never answer these questions with absolute certainty until much later on in my career when I encountered real die hard politicians. It turns out she was an absolute amateur in comparison.

Within a year of my joining, Pinky, who I had worked very closely with, resigned to join another organisation. Considering the fact that I knew virtually everything she did, I expected her to back me and if not, at least back my colleague to succeed her. On the contrary, she heard that we were both planning to apply and she crushed every attempt we made to get ahead during her notice period and she won. Neither of us got the job and we both left the organisation a few months later. What did I do wrong here? I knew no one above Pinky’s level and no one knew me. My destiny in this organisation was entirely in her hands and she did with me as she pleased.  

Since then, I have climbed the corporate ladder and learnt a few political lessons myself. Below are a few that I would like to share:
  1. Get to know who’s who in the organisation – You MUST educate yourself on who’s who in the organisation. Get hold of the company organogram and understand what roles each person above you plays. You never know who you are standing next to and you do not want to say something completely inappropriate around the CEO. That first impression may kill your career.
  2. Be visible – Use all available platforms and make an effort to introduce yourself to senior people in the organisation. These platforms may be: in the lift, the canteen, formal meetings etc.
  3. Find a “sponsor” – This is someone senior in the organisation that you develop a “sounding board” relationship with. This person may also act as a mentor but most importantly, this will be your voice at senior level and they will come in handy when battles are fought. Seek advice from the person regularly.
  4. Micro manage the perception that senior people in the organisation have of you – Always remember that not everyone is on your side and as a result negative sentiments about you will be out there. You must be available often enough to disciplel these sentiments.
  5. Make your ideas known – Come up with clever ideas and don’t be shy to share them with senior people. Most of them will appreciate your guts and remember who you are (most importantly)
  6. Volunteer – Be the first to volunteer your services for additional projects, especially those initiated by senior people. These projects often provide great networking platforms.
  7. Take time to understand the clicks that exist in the organisation and be careful not to disadvantage yourself by aligning with the wrong crew.
  8. Do not speak ill of your boss to senior people – Believe it or not, the last thing you want to do is position yourself as an enemy of authority. That builds instant mistrust. Speak well of your boss at all times and make them feel part of the relationships that you have within the organisation.
  9. Always remain professional – Whatever you do, do not cross the professional line and get personal. Familiarity may expose your weaknesses and kill off any prospect of progress you may have had.
  10. Develop some “praise singers” – As is the case with many other things, praise that comes from other sources other than yourself is deemed to be credible. One of the most credible sources of this praise is your boss. Make sure you manage this relationship at all levels. Have sufficient people below, at your level and above you who have good things to say about your contribution.

Despite growing up a very shy and reserved young man, corporate quickly taught me that those who get recognition and consequent promotion are those who put their hands up, are visible and back this up with performance, not necessarily the quiet hard worker who hopes that one day their contribution will be seen.

An unfortunate truth is therefore that all who are not willing to play politics should either settle for where they are and accept it, or go into business with the false impression that they won’t find more intense politics there.

Considering how diverse South Africa is as a country, the corporate world has been grappling with how best to deal with the integration of the different race groups and cultures for the last 20 years. Given the size and importance of this topic, I have excluded it from this blog and will be writing about diversity management specifically in the next one.

I would appreciate any comments and additional lessons that you too have learnt in your career as I build on this blog.

- Amasi Mwela

Monday, 1 December 2014

Part 4 - Unspoken Lessons of Corporate South Africa (YOU RACIST)

Have you ever worked with someone who you knew, that you knew, that you knew, was a racist but you couldn’t prove it? Have you ever worked with someone who you knew had a problem with you for just being you? Have you ever worked with someone who made it his or her life mission to make sure you felt excluded? Have you ever worked with someone who’s sole existence seemed to be to deplete your self-esteem? Have you ever left work feeling completely incompetent having achieved many things prior to joining that organization? Have you ever sat through an entire meeting that has been addressed in a language you didn’t understand yet your contribution and expertise were required? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then this blog in for you.

South Africa has a rich history and has within it a wide array of cultures, religions and most notably, race groups. What makes South Africa unique however is its history of apartheid, which in some cases magnifies even the simplest disagreements between people of different races. With this and my personal experiences in mind, this blog seeks to highlight some of the lessons I’ve learnt on a topic that’s very close to my heart, Diversity Management!

Early in my career, I naively trusted everyone and absolutely refused to believe that colleagues would be so unprofessional as to be biased against me based on the color of my skin. As I have grown over the years, some of my experiences have confirmed that my reality early on differs from my view of the world now. With age and maturity, I have learnt to take responsibility first and only label experiences as a last resort.

A few years ago, I joined an organization with the view of learning what working at senior management level was all about and of course taking my career to the next level in the process. Although I had done some preparatory work to ensure that I was joining the right organization, I missed a few minor details that initially cost me my happiness during my time in this organization. I had forgotten to ask about the composition of the management team I was joining. Was this important? Yes absolutely! Not knowing meant I went in totally unprepared and whoever I found there had the upper hand. So what was the composition of this team and what was the significance?

Firstly, I was the youngest person on the team by far, with 3 of the 6 team members within 5 years of retirement. The significance of this? I was expected to behave myself, arrive on time, leave after the boss and most importantly, change nothing. Secondly I was the only black African on the team. The significance of this? Fitting in would take a lot of personal adjustment as there were no natural allies in sight. This was to become my greatest growth point of all time!!

The first meeting I attended was most entertaining. Other than my introduction, the entire meeting was conducted in Afrikaans, a language that I was completely useless in at the time. By now, I had learnt how to identify who the “blue eyed boy” was and within 5 minutes Tommy was sticking out like an attention deprived pupil trying to get the teacher’s attention “ let me answer…” Here, I took a mental note..

Not wanting to ruffle feathers, I kept quiet and approached my boss after the meeting and highlighted my “language disability” to which he jokingly responded, “You will learn”… I particularly did not find that amusing but I was here now and would have to make the best of this situation! There was a clear signal from the team here, led by Tommy, of two things. Firstly that I was a complete outsider who shouldn’t dare suggest any changes to how things are done “around here” and secondly, that my contribution wasn’t required in this meeting and possibly for as long as I worked there. Was my appointment meant to add some color to the team? Was I experiencing racism? At that point I thought so but in hindsight, I think I may have just been dealing with an emotionally incompetent bunch that has failed to move with the times.

During my time in this organization I experienced everything from comments like “good afternoon” when I arrived ten minutes before my official starting time, to my qualifications and experience being questioned because the semi illiterate Tommy saw the need to challenge my well thought out financial reasoning. This guy was so daft that he argued with me (an experienced Accountant) about the accounting treatment of depreciation based on the fact that he did accounting in Grade 10. To this day I can’t find the words to respond to this level of stupidity. Was this racism? I thought so then but my view now is slightly different. It was a concerted effort to deplete my self-confidence and consequently diminish my influence in any form of decision-making.

Years later, I had the privilege of moving to another organization in an industry I never thought I would ever work in, Travel & Tourism. This industry is not traditionally known for having “macho men” and as fate would have it, I was handed a team of about 10 ladies to manage, well balanced with every race group represented.

On my first day at work, I jokingly asked the youngest lady in the team to order me some stationery and this “born free” was very quick to put me in place. “I’m not your PA” she said. Was she racist? If so that would have been odd as she too was black!! What would I then call this? Sexism? Black on black violence?... or just a young lady being honest. I consciously chose the latter and in her, developed a sounding board for myself, knowing that she would always say things as they were.

I had the best time of my career managing this team and although they sometimes gave me headaches and made me feel emotions I never knew I had, they taught me a lot about myself and how to manage diverse groups of people. Leaving this team for my next job was undoubtedly the most difficult career decision I have ever had to make.

So, what have I learnt over the years regarding the management of diversity? How do you manage people from different backgrounds effectively and get the best out of them? How do you manage eager peers like Tommy and come out on top? Here are a few personal learnings:

  1. Don’t be too quick to categorize the actions of others. Every day we come across opportunities to see racism, sexism, tribalism etc. committed by others toward us. Classifications tend to make things look a lot more serious than they are and derail your focus, giving the edge to the likes of Tommy.
  2. Diversity management is not an academic exercise, goes beyond a workshop or two and involves real people. All people desire respect and recognition regardless of political affiliation, religious alignment, race and gender.
  3. A person is a culmination of factors that brought them to where they are when you meet them. These factors range from upbringing to life experiences. In order to effectively manage diverse groups of people, one needs to understand each individual and focus on “man management” rather than group management. Manage everyone as an individual but point them towards the common goal.
  4. Take responsibility and hold your own where necessary. Often you have to teach people how to treat you and the earlier this is done in a working relationship, the fewer problems you are likely to have, as was the case with my “born free” experience. I never asked her for stationery again!!
  5. Protect your self-esteem from colleagues who are out to destroy it. If you are a manager of people, protect the self-esteem of the staff who work for you.
  6. Find commonalities to celebrate within the teams you lead. You will eventually find that the differences begin to deplete and seem insignificant.
  7. When managing peers and superiors, always align your point to the greater good of the organization and not personal gain. Very few people can argue with that even if they don’t like you.
  8. Find the correct balance between being a complete walkover and being unnecessarily defensive. There is normally a sweet spot that guarantees results all the time.
  9. What we often perceive as discrimination is simply a lack of exposure to what someone else’s reality is. Make it a point to gain some understanding of what it means to be in the other person’s shoes.
  10. Performance is your best defense for any form of discrimination. That said, arrogance in performance is the fastest way to get shot down. Again there is a balance here.

This is the last of my four part series on the Unspoken Lessons of Corporate SA. I would appreciate any comments and additional lessons that you too have learnt in your career and any feedback on how these blogs have helped you in your journey.

Amasi Mwela

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Other Side of The Capsule (Written by B. Madikizela & M. Motjope)

As I scan my card and enter through the capsule and come out the other side, I am another. With my suit on, I believe my armour will protect me and allow me to be invincible to the deadly, silent and invisible bullets that are showered at me on a daily basis. I manoeuvre around the maze of “we have to groom you” bullet; to the “there is a limited pool of black talent” bullet. I duck the “don’t focus on the small bonus, rather embrace the opportunity of working here” bullet. The “peer review feedback” bullet is the one that bothers me the least. I know the capsule will conjure all sorts of annual statements from “you don’t smile enough”, “you talk too much”, “you need more projects”, “you need more training”, “you are getting there, maybe next year or maybe 2”. So I duck and dive in my tailored suit and designer shoes.

Why is it that I need to step in another persona? Am I not good enough the way that my mother raised me, am I not good enough just the way my community raised me? From the way I pronounce my words I am ridiculed, from the way that I respect my elders I’m told it’s a sign of a lack of confidence, but my mother who knows it all told me, “you don’t look at into an elder’s eyes, it’s a sign of disrespect”. Then what is it “lack of confidence” or “sign of disrespect”... I am forced to choose.

My parents granted me the opportunity to get a white man’s education, they granted me the opportunity to go to an institution of higher education and through the way they raised me allowed me to be able to be confident in seeking employment in a white man’s company. Up until then I was good enough just the way I am. On the other side of the capsule I am taught “Business Etiquette” which I support 100% however in the process I am silently and invisibly forced to change who I am in order to fit in, in order to be considered a “team player”. I still ask but why am I not good enough just the way I am?

I figure this is how it is when starting out at work, things do get better, once they get to know what a lovely person I am then I don’t have to pretend to be what I am not...but for now let me just continue. I see my brothers and sisters in the capsule, manoeuvring around the bullets. I ask myself if they don’t see the psychological warfare against them. They seem to be taking it along in their strides very well. Fancy cars, townhouses, designer bags and imported shirts, you name it they got it and they can’t wait to tell me all about it, day in, day out. But they don’t talk about how they are on conveyor belts while their white counterparts are on escalators. The conveyor belts move in and out while escalators move in and up.

Years down the line I don’t recognise me anymore... A younger me came through the capsule with hope in her heart and now sees an older version of herself and asks, “How do I survive this capsule, how do I make sure I’m an executive in 5 years?” Sheepishly I’m taken back to the choices I was forced to make in order to survive the capsule. Was I really forced? Oh the sweet taste of money, the privilege to be part of the townhouse brigade, to drive a luxury car, to wear the best designer suits and the joy of having a booming social life at 25. Besides there’s a price to what cost did I want to be a “team player”.

I have a goal and that is to be an Executive, have I become that Executive? Yes I have. Am I who my mother and my community raised? The young girl who had all the confidence in the world, the type of confidence that was brewed from basic human principles of ubuntu? The principle that said “umntu ngumntu ngabantu”; “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”; “humility and respect of another human being”. The African principles that moulded African thinkers like Bantu Biko. I don’t think so. What my eyes have seen and my ears have heard in my journey to be that Executive should not be seen or heard by the younger version of me. The constant emotional and mental struggle of who I am and what I want to be in the backdrop of an environment that borders on amorality. Did I become that Executive honestly...or was it a figment of my imagination? I have become what they want me to be “the different black” and besides what is the big deal (I think to myself) I have my townhouse, my luxury car and my designer suits. It is a big deal because I am not who my mother, my community raised me to be.

As age and wisdom sets in on my journey, in and out of the capsule, my beautiful black spirit consistently begs me to find my purpose. My contribution to my people is questionable. I can only see glimpses of my courage to stand by that which makes me a proud African. I have spent 8 hours of so many work days letting go of me and clutching onto what is good for the capsule. I now see through the illusion of the capsule in its entirety and how many have fallen for it. The creation of the misfit well educated and trained to continually adapt to be the other. I see through the illusion of only allowing blacks to be the chocolate sprinkle of white corporate coffee, whose coffee beans are the products of ill gotten gains of black labour and land. I see how my being here dealing with these bonus coated bullets, peer review feedback bullets is a bogus plot to make sure I don’t find the fire in me. The burning fire that made Biko get up, walk and talk black pride.

The other side of the capsule has been built on models that only benefit those that are like them or become like them. I want to be me and still succeed with my best shining brighter than ever. It is possible only if the basic human principle form part of the model. I have found the me that my mother raised, that my community raised and I have a choice to remain on the other side of the capsule and fight for change for the younger me or to leave and be with others like me or establish the other side of the capsule whose model is based on the basic human principles. I will then no longer be forced to choose.

But I am still here in the capsule. I write what I like from this capsule. I am a bipolar case at its best, two extremes in order to survive, at home I am one and through the capsules I am another. Yet when all is silent and when it matters I am not able to sleep because I am not ONE