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The invisible professionals

by Wiseman Magasela
12 August 2019 | 1379 Views
Highly educated blacks working in South Africa struggle against a system that aims to exclude and sideline them. There is the open struggle that is fought with bullets and bombs out on the plains. War is declared. Battle lines are drawn. The enemy is known and identifiable. South Africa had its own taste of this. There are those who were shot in cold blood, bludgeoned to death, bodies blown apart with explosives, "braaied", thrown out of 13th-floor windows, hanged, dropped into the ocean from aeroplanes, and many others who disappeared, still without trace. Then there is the covert struggle, the war that begins every time you enter the gates of the company or organisation you work for. The world of work. Another terrain of struggle. The war is not openly declared and the battle lines are blurred. The forces of change, driven by the principles of democracy, justice, equality, freedom and rights, have delivered you to the organisation among unwilling partners to the changes. Unable to employ the tactics of the good old days, they devise new strategies to deal with you. They refuse to see you, hear you or acknowledge your presence. You become, in their eyes, invisible - pastless, presenceless, futureless and mindless.

The strategies that are adopted against you echo what Ralph Ellison wrote in the prologue to Invisible Man: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me ... when they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me." If you are black in South Africa's world of work, it is a daily struggle against a system that constantly alienates you, aiming to exclude and sideline you. If you are black, you are never good enough. Powerful but subtle and insidious currents incessantly work at undermining you, pinning you down "where you belong". Every day becomes a struggle as those around you, the privileged, aim to limit your space, deny you opportunities and render you incapable and sterile. You have to fight for an acknowledgement that to be where you are you have worked hard. When you arrive at your new job, there is a fresh eagerness that you bring. In two months you realise you have been turned into a piece of semi-movable furniture. You are supposed to be without views or ideas and to make no meaningful contributions, as you are still learning. In the rare instances you are given responsibility, there are more than two heads looking over your shoulders. You and John may start the same job at the same level on the same week but he will be managing you in six months.

You conclude that you were born for the sidelines. You are supposed to be a permanent spectator as blacks need perpetual development on critical thinking, on how to interpret issues, read the market, identify opportunities, and develop productive client relations and networks. When you want to participate in the game, the rules change, your fitness is questioned and your capacity doubted. You are either left alone to ponder your future or consigned to unwilling experts to develop you. Often you are sabotaged. You could become a lapdog, a silent, muted, tamed, black-skinned cheap token. This is very difficult. It would be easy if there were thousands of black experts, scientists, managers, social planners and leaders in this and that. Then you could sacrifice yourself and hope your children will be different. When you question and fight you are labelled, dissuaded and your spirit dampened; you are told in very clear language that you do not know what you are doing or talking about.

You have to fight against the networks that protect interests, position and privilege. The e-mail that is never sent to you, the invites that always miss your office, the meeting that is held in your absence, the mailing list without your name, the suggestions you make in meetings being followed by silence as the chair jumps to the next item on the agenda, the "inadvertent" omission of your name, the withholding of information that would advantage your understanding and self-development, the delegation of responsibilities that favours others and not you, and the blatant but vehemently denied "ganging up" against your views. Very quickly, you learn that most of the time you are invisible. And you are secretly blamed for a lack of ambition and determination, for never involving yourself; you are not fit for promotion. You might be physically present at the meeting but it is preferred that you leave your brain at home. You become a perpetual "boy" or "maid" with degrees, experience and exposure - all of which is never good enough to be used to influence anything. Why do you think you are different to Beatrice who makes the coffee, Johnson the messenger, Sam the 50-year-old photocopy boy or Sonnyboy the driver?

You may have experience that adequately parallels that of your colleagues, but you are a perpetual child to be led by the hand. "Luminaries" such as General Jan Smuts held this view of blacks in the 1920s. Little, it appears, has changed. Whenever your face appears, the huge affirmative action banner that you are supposed to carry everywhere lights up, bright and clear. You need a mentor, you are on staff development, a special course, and even the secretary, without prompting, readily offers her supervision skills whenever you are around. She reminds you of the deadline for the submission of this and that. She can see you need help. Lots of it.




The pride that this is your motherland is slowly deflated. That you have views and opinions just like any American, Australian, European or expatriate expert is acknowledged but you lack the global perspective. Nothing global has ever come out of Inanda, Hlabisa, Mdantsane or Soshanguve - your points of reference. You sit dumbfounded as post-1994 experts determine the future and direction of your country and your people. There are certain words that are not associated with you - determination, motivation, leadership, insight and achievement. Every morning becomes a struggle as you prepare for a world in which you do not matter. When you pack your bags and go, you confirm what a former vice-chancellor stated: "Until there is a critical mass, blacks will never stay at our institutions." He failed to point the path to the critical mass.

There are the informal networks that you are not part of. Plans are hatched over red wine at weekends that exclude you. These weekend "informal gatherings" are where career pathing, promotions, ideas and activities are discussed and decided, with the mandatory office meeting a mere token for the formalisation of the rule of the clique. Cooperation, communication and teamwork are constantly preached. The fact that these never happen is seen as a "strategic challenge" and a perennial problem that the organisation somehow never solves. The truth is that the status quo disfavours you and maybe a handful of others who could be empowered by unencumbered, open co- operation and communication. Many still believe that blacks want it all - for free, delivered to them on a platter, without sweat and sacrifice. Few ever pause to see their prejudice and role in shattering dreams, in creating organisational climates that demotivate and exclude, making some invisible, forcing them to migrate to where they think they will be visible ... and unfortunately there are few such places right now in this country.

------
Wiseman Magasela, a former sociology lecturer, is senior researcher at the National Research Foundation. This article is written in his personal capacity.

Wiseman Magasela Professional Black


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