Sinethemba knows what it is like to be heading down the wrong path and then suddenly be given the opportunity to turn things around. When he was in Grade 10, he struggled at his school in Khayelitsha. He wasn’t clear on what he wanted to do with his life and the role models around him, weren’t inspiring. In Grade 11, he became involved in the IkamvaYouth programme. The timing of this experience was really important.
One of the best things for Sinethemba was to be supported by high-quality mentors – young people on the same path as him, some even studying at the institution he aspired to attend. These mentors helped facilitate his entry into the University of Cape Town (UCT) and his transition into a new, unknown institution. Many people told him he wouldn’t make it to UCT. But this was where he wanted to study. By having a mentor from UCT, he was able to see how this could be possible and what he needed to do to make it happen. For him, these mentors were “not just someone theoretically saying things, but practically doing it. They were the best resource in terms of information and the preparation that was required.” It was also hugely helpful that they backed him on his vision.
For Sinethemba, the power of this timely support that was so well aligned with his own dreams really helped to change the course of his life. He now tutors and mentors other young learners on the Ikamva programme.
“My path has been a zigzag, a roller coaster. I have never been one to plan a career. Because of my diverse educational background and life experience, I think I bring a different way of thinking. And because of this, people gave me opportunities. And I took them.”
While this may not have been a conventional path, it has been a rewarding and fulfilling one – a good reminder that there are many paths to travel.
How can our families positively influence our opportunities for success? In the case of Esethu, this influence was huge, particularly when it came to her tertiary education and further studies.
However, Esethu had to figure out what she was going to study – her family weren’t really able to help her with this, and there were times when she wasn’t sure what direction she should be taking. Initially she chose what she thought she was capable of, rather than what excited her. That didn’t work. She dropped out of her BSc studies before the end of her first year.
But then she attended a fundraising event at a home for orphaned children back in her home town in the Eastern Cape. The event was very poorly attended. And she wondered why. This got her thinking about a career in communications, and soon thereafter she enrolled for a BA in media studies.
Esethu is someone who was always on the lookout for small jobs and internships during her school or university holidays, always asking, ‘what can I do?’. An important break came when she started a fairly low key job working for a local newspaper in Port Elizabeth, while she was still studying. It was a very small team – just her and the editor. The editor trusted Esethu, and, as she says: ‘When you feel trusted, you trust yourself.’ The editor also took her everywhere, exposed her to lots of different things and gave her a large workload to manage. And Esethu did it!
She feels sure that this experience provided her with the springboard into her first full-time job and gave her many of the skills and confidence that enabled successful entry into this first official job.
If you had asked Nyameka a couple of years ago whether she would have seen herself in a management position, she would have said, ‘no way!’. She describes herself as someone who is very shy and quiet – not qualities she imagines in a manager.
What made it possible for her to make these huge leaps and take up a position that was so far from what she thought she was capable of? Nyameka attributes this to the opportunities she was given on the programme to learn to get to know and understand herself, and the life skills that she acquired through the experience.
She says: “I knew I was a person who wanted to be alone, but I didn’t really understand about introversion and extroversion. I didn’t have this insight. I would often complain that people were too loud. But as I came to understand these differences, it freed me up to be myself in the group. That understanding helped me to grow into a management person. I realised that you don’t have to be bubbly, but you can learn certain communication skills, and how to interact with people, and through this, get things done. To be a good manager you don’t have to be over confident. You can be yourself.”
Without this personal development opportunity, Nyameka might not have gotten so far. But this, together with her willingness to use the insights she gained along the way, has meant that she is now on an exciting career path with ever expanding possibilities for professional growth and development.
How do you decide who to surround yourself with? And how does this effect who you end up becoming and what you do with your life?
At university, she participated in the #RhodesMustFall movement. This furthered her resolve around her right to be here – even more so as a queer woman and an activist. She began to surround herself with people who understood and affirmed her, and through this, became more and more accepting of who she is.
“People appreciate that. Your potential comes through more when you are comfortable in yourself.”
For Kealeboga, this acceptance has opened up a lot of opportunities.
She currently works as deputy head at Equal Education in the Western Cape office, and has completed her Honours in Gender and Transformation.
Much like Esethu Numa, Fefe attributes her success and opportunities to her family, in particular to her mom, and the fact that from an early age she learnt how to be resourceful.
What is Fefe’s advice to other young people looking for opportunities? “No one is going to save you besides yourself. Oprah says this all the time. Yes, people will provide opportunities, but no one is going to do this if they didn’t see potential in you. You have to have a plan. Where you come from doesn’t determine where you go. That is a struggle that most young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have to face. You have to believe in yourself and then everything else comes together.”
At 26 years old, Fefe has an Honours degree in Economics, she is accumulating excellent work experience and is also a mother to Melo, who’s nearly three.
Reuben Riffel is a renowned celebrity chef – he owns five restaurants across the country and has a number of prestigious awards under his belt. When we asked him what opened up all these opportunities for him, he said:
Esethu Hasane is another young person who has found that his family situation played a significant role in how he responded to opportunities. He was brought up by his mom who worked as a domestic worker. Being the child of a single parent changed his perspective on life and opportunities.
When he was in Grade 4, he failed.
“I think it’s one of the things that woke me up at a young age. I think it shook me. I got a new perspective on being focused. I realised that if you don’t pay attention, you are going to fail. After that, I never dropped out of the top 3 in class. I never lost focus. In Grade 10, I went to Ndamase Senior Secondary School in Umtata – there was no maths, English, economics or accounting teacher. I realised that if I stayed there, I wouldn’t pass Grade 12. I then went to Cape Town to a school in Gugulethu called ID Mkhize High School. There we had teachers – it was relatively better than the school in the Eastern Cape.”
After school, Esethu got into university and completed a Bachelor of Social Sciences in International Relations, Media Studies and Public Policy & Administration. He then went to Pretoria to look for a job. He worked for a while, but the job didn’t work out and he was subsequently unemployed for a couple of months.
“It was the most stressful time of my life. A day not working is like a decade. You don’t have money for rent, you don’t have money for transport, you don’t have money to look for a job. Looking for a job is a job itself! You need money for travel, for internet. It was a real hassle. But luckily, I wasn’t unemployed for long. I was also speaking to people. That’s another important part of looking for a job. It’s not only about submitting CVs. You must market yourself to potential employers who you don’t know and who don’t know you.”
And then an opportunity came up to do an internship in the office of the Minister of Sports and Recreation. Esethu took it, subsequently becoming the spokesperson for the Minister.
What is his advice to other young people in a similar situation?
“Settling for what you think is less is never a bad thing. Sometimes you have to settle for less to get to better things. I am here because of the small steps that I took that I considered ‘settling for’ at the time, but today I am where I always wanted to be because I made a sacrifice. Sacrificing and compromising is not a bad thing – particularly if you are compromising for a bigger picture. You don’t start big. You take smaller steps. If you want to become something – and the future is bleak – you must take the small steps that are available to you at a particular time. If you are poor and black, you are always going to struggle with something. The way out of any struggle, is taking the small steps out.”
David Harrison is CEO of the DG Murray Trust. We asked him to tell us about his journey – about the opportunities in his life that opened things up for him. He also spoke to us about what he looks for in (young) people when he recruits them and why.
For me, it was really helpful to understand the interface between the clinician and the health system. And that happens at the frontline. It helped me to understand service delivery. It also helped me to reframe what wasn’t working, as an opportunity. In the health and welfare sector, we often speak of need and problem, not opportunity. So seeking pinch points that, if we unlock, would get a far bigger effect – that became my interest.
A really useful comment someone made to me early on was that I had an instinct for public health and that I could see things differently. I didn’t realise that I could see things differently. That was really, really helpful – I guess I was a bit intimidated by the number of letters behind people’s names in terms of degrees and specialisations and here I was fresh out of medical school. What I realised – in time – was that relative inexperience was a blessing; it had worth. I could look at things through different eyes, I could really struggle to understand what was going on, instead of trying to locate it in a particular academic theory or what others had said about it.
That’s helped me as I have looked for people to work with in my career – I haven’t necessarily looked for people with many degrees behind their names. That’s why I have really enjoyed working with younger people – younger people who demonstrate big potential, but don’t necessarily have the experience under their belts. They are lean and hungry, and they want to explore ideas. That’s the reality I have found most useful to work with. I generally stay away from conferences – I don’t like the echo chambers. So I look for people who are willing to think differently, to look at a problem differently, and to carve out their own path. It stemmed from someone who looked at me and was willing to affirm what I was bringing to the table even though I didn’t have all the qualifications.
If you advertise a job, there will almost inevitably be 200 CVs to look at. The first thing I look for is who’s different, who stands out from the crowd, who’s sparky, who wears their heart on their sleeve and says what they believe in, and what they want to do with their life. They need to give you a sense of what they have done in life, not necessarily paid work, but where have they volunteered, been energetic, been active, tried things out – that’s what I really look for. And people who have this, get onto the shortlist. To get to that first step you have to be able to express spark.
My next opportunity in life came when the Kaiser Family Foundation was funding a book in South Africa, analysing health policy. They had completed most of the book but didn’t know what the concluding chapter should be. Michael Sinclair, from the Kaiser Foundation, was looking for someone who could bring a fresh approach – so he teamed me up with [Sociology Professor] Mike Savage and we wrote a really excellent final chapter. At the same time, the Health Systems Trust was being set up to plan for health services in South Africa. They were looking for someone to head it up – certainly not a young whipper snapper straight out of medical school! But they couldn’t find anyone to do all the legwork, all the administrative chores of setting up the trust, getting the bank accounts going, and starting the process of consultation around the country – so I did this, knowing that they’d look for a ‘heavy hitter’ after six months. At the end of six months, it was just me and someone else in the running – I got offered the job, even though I was the fallback!”
Weren’t you terrified? What kept you going? What made you feel, ‘I can do this’?
“Part of it was working in a new space in South Africa – everyone was new and inexperienced. There was a particular space. But having said that, I still think there are big spaces even today where there isn’t the knowledge or expertise – spaces for people to get involved, for young people to do things that haven’t been done before that can move things forward. That’s the lovely thing about this young democracy. If you try to do this in the [United] States, there is such a long pecking order, you’d be down at the bottom of the pile. It would take you 20 years to work into a position that I was thrust into overnight. So you need to be able to identify those spaces and those opportunities for rapid growth, if you are willing to put in the hard work.
It is also really helpful not to be too obsessed with a particular place you want to get to in your life. It is good to be open to the possibility of hand holds and directions that may open up other opportunities for you. For me, it’s been useful to frame my life not by saying ‘in 20 years I want to be the DG or a professor’ but rather to say, ‘in the next five years, what can I do that’s going to make a real difference?’. And in doing so, it has just kept on opening up possibilities for me.
The third key opportunity for me came while at the Health Systems Trust. I felt I needed to develop my own academic skills and so I did a research Masters at night. But I thought I needed to do a Masters in public health as well. Someone said: ‘Don’t be crazy – you know 90% of public health so you will only benefit from 10%. Go and do something you don’t know about. Do public policy of education, of gravel mining, of transport.’
For me, this was really helpful. It made me realise the limitations of linear paths of development, where you become increasingly specialised and go down a narrow path of development. If you want to contribute to the wicked problems of this country, to the multi-faceted problems, you need to have a horizon that is constantly expanding and you need to look for perspectives that are different. That’s why I have been so happy at DGMT – we deal with education, transport, technology – the neurons in our brains are buzzing!”
It sounds like you have constantly been unsettling yourself?
“Yes, I guess this is partly personality and partly cultivated. People must cultivate the ability to see opportunity in uncertainty – to understand that disruptive technologies are necessarily different to what we have at present. You have got to look for risk, and live in a state of uncertainty of outcomes. This requires developing a set of skills and attitudes to be able to deal with this.”
Any last advice for young people?
“It is important that when young people are mapping out their life, they mustn’t map it out with the destination in mind. But rather, they must ask: ‘What is the next harbour or station or place that I want to go to?’ The world is a big place, and you can’t visit it all. If you map it out too much, you may miss the unexplored stuff. And that for me has been the most exciting – to work in spaces that are relatively unexplored. For me, this opened up a range of possibilities which wouldn’t have been in place if had thought I was simply on a ladder to success.
So it’s good to see yourself as on a climbing wall, looking for the next handhold, looking for a lattice of opportunities. Some handholds will be very small and frail, and you’ll cling on with your fingertips. They won’t necessarily be the ones with the greatest status but you go there and do it, because it enables you to see the next opportunity, which may be more rewarding.”