We Are the Ones We Need

It is not just deeply tragic but it is simply scandalous that in 2019 black professionals still have to fight for space and acceptance as equally deserving employees in corporate South Africa. In We Are the Ones We Need Sihle Bolani, a young black woman professional, chronicles her painful journey as she fights against vicious and systematic discrimination and victimisation in one of South Africa’s big four banks. She shows how, because she dares to voice her views and questions what she considers as lack of fairness, she is systematically isolated, marginalised by white managers who scheme and gang up against her and ultimately throw her out of the bank.

Bolani painfully writes, “I worked my way through primary school believing that the playing field was equal and that the only determining factors for success were hard work, diligence and passion…After I started working, disillusionment set in, hard and heavy.” She quickly realised that being a confident, educated black woman was actually a problem. She quickly carried a stigma. Her value was being questioned every day, directly and indirectly. An otherwise competent and confident professional, she was made to question herself and her capabilities. Whilst she grew up being taught at home and school (model C) that you have to be visible, this seemed not supposed to be the case for a black woman in the workplace. She concluded that blacks, and black women in particular, are actively made to feel invisible. In fact, for her to survive she needed to be invisible. She was only needed to be there as a number on the scorecard.

The book left me somewhat unsure about the future of black professionals in corporate SA. From Sihle’s experience it seems that there are only two options for a black professional;  surrender or quit. Sihle ultimately quit. She lists other young people whose health was impacted by the concerted emotional violence and ultimately quit. “Some black colleagues began to leaving the bank, others began falling apart and being checked into mental health facilities.” While not useful in the context of a country that is in deep need of diversity, inclusion and integration,  it also points to dangers of diversity without inclusion. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of EE legislation is that companies are rewarded on numbers (diversity), and not on what happens to the individuals once they are inside the company (inclusion).

As a black professional, as a black executive and as a black board member myself, Sihle’s harrowing experience forced me to reflect deeply. The precarious position of black managers in corporate SA is seldom discussed. Sihle felt angry, disappointed, hurt and betrayed by Sbu, Tumelo, Aphiwe and Jabulani, her black managers. She argues that they were complicit to the violence inflicted against her. She concludes that the black executives and directors have become the “new perpetrators”. Are they really? Are they not equally on the receiving end of the same violence? Could they perhaps be paralysed and saturated with scars and pain? Is the burden of black tax, that most carry, a legitimate enough reason for those who choose to put their heads down and simply absorb the punches? This is an important discussion that must be held.

From the book I also got a sense that perhaps corporate SA might even be harder and heavier for young black professionals from middle class backgrounds. They grow up together with John, James and Tracy. They go to the same creche, primary school and high school. They share “sleep overs”, popcorn in movies, and attend the same ballet and piano classes. They might even get better grades in maths and science! Then boom, as interns they are not allocated the same plum projects. They don’t get the same attention from their manager. As Jonny Steinberg reminds us “young black people who are on the up must make their way through institutions that still bear the distinctive marks of whiteness.” That is what Sandra, Elliot, Amanda, Carol, Casey and Claudia where protecting and defending in the case of Sihle. She observed “the way white people connect with, uplift and protect each other in the workplace.”

In the last few pages of the book Sihle suggests going the legal route as one of the solutions. But this is not backed up by her experiences. She meticulously built a case by keeping a paper trail. But she underestimated the role of management in manipulating disciplinary processes to produce the results they wanted. She also underestimated the bruising impact of the actual process on her wellbeing.

As a black parent, I was left wondering whether I would be able to see the signs if my daughter / son were under siege at work. On the other hand, this story is saying that if s/he is competent and confident, I should assume that s/he is and will be under siege. I should just consciously be a shock absorber and provide a supporting mechanism for them.

We Are the Ones We Need is a book that every black professional, junior and senior, should read. I also recommend it to parents of young professionals. Perhaps it is more important for white managers to read this book. Maybe some of them are simply playing out their (innocent) unconscious bias.