I was born in Polokwane, Limpopo, 28 years ago. We lived in a very small, quirky little town called Haenertsburg in the Magoebaskloof area.
Having no formal education apart from Matric, my dad started working for Coca Cola straight after he finished the two years of compulsory military service that white men were required to do back then. He started in the factory where he managed the fridges and the trucks. Over time, Coca Cola sent him to do his undergrad and a MBA, and we were transferred to Johannesburg. My mom is a kindergarten teacher, it was her whole life until we moved to Egypt, where she was no longer able to work because of permits and languages. My sister and I attended my mother’s pre-primary school.
I definitely have a story of privilege.
I had a pleasant childhood in Florida, Johannesburg – not a very posh community, we lived more on the scruffy side. As a very Afrikaans and sheltered community, you could easily get away with not really learning English. I started Grade 1 and finished Grade 8 at the same primary school and high school there.
My grandmother has been my biggest support and fan in life.
When Zimbabwe started having problems she would pack her little Corsa car, take out the seats, and fill it with maize and Bibles and just drive straight into the villages – all on her own. She’s really been an inspiration to give without wanting to receive. I will never call her an old lady because she will never be old – she is really my female inspiration in life.
My mother has done everything for her children and family. She fell pregnant in her Matric year with my sister, so she also had to juggle a lot of things in life to provide for us. She never had a formal education, but managed to start a kindergarten. She really knows what it is to work hard.
My Dad played a very big role in my life. He pushed and drilled us. When I was 16, he gave us the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro and he said you will not get kit until you can run 10 kilometres in 50 minutes. And that summarises him in a nutshell.
My sister – a woman in IT! I rely on her quite heavily for my work at the moment. She is a mother of two, my two godchildren who I love dearly. She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life! She did her degree in pure mathematics, applied mathematics and computer science. Enough said.
In 2005, my dad’s job took us to Egypt.
This was a culture shock of note. We lived in Cairo – 18 million people in one city! I started what would be the equivalent to Grade 11 at a British international school. The move to Egypt was the moment my whole world got turned upside down. I was so settled, I had been with the same kids from Grade 1 and I was very sad to not matriculate with them. I had good friends, a boyfriend. I didn’t want to go to Egypt – Egypt was chaotic. But I did go, and it was my choice – doing British A-levels seemed like good opportunity. I remember my sister opening the door when we first arrived there and the noise of traffic coming through… She looked at me and asked “are you going to be able to live here?” and I said “well, we’re going to have to.”
I had to switch to English tuition. Mathematics was particularly hard; my marks took a big tumble. I had to get a C to get into university and I think I made it by 8 marks at the end of the day. Before that, I was an A level student. But the school was amazing – interesting teachers and interesting kids who have lived all over the world. We were a small, but very diverse group: 13 kids in my final year, all of us coming from different nations – more than a few with a bit of an identity crisis, I think.
In the end I did not want to leave. If you gave me a job in Egypt today, I’d happily go back.
I did my undergrad and honours in Canada.
This was made possible by the British A levels and was the cheapest option for study in comparison to the UK and Europe. I did a BA in International Development Studies and Political Science as my double major. Egypt opened my eyes to the development and NGO sector. I came into contact with people working at the United Nations and other NGOs there, and I figured this is what I wanted to do.
In Canada I realised for the first time that I’m an immigrant – and this status comes with some discrimination. Immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia were all grouped into a less well-off campus. It was a struggle getting past my accent and many people asked why I am white if I come from South Africa. It was a surprise that the rest of the world didn’t know the history of our country. In the end they didn’t care what colour you were though, to them you were just another African, probably with less schooling and less economic benefits than everyone else. I had a great experience though. I got a great education at an amazing university, but I knew Canada wasn’t for me – it was just a little too bland. Everything works – trains, public transport, everything just flows. People would get upset because the trains were three minutes late. I like Africa’s hustle and bustle, it’s fun, people complain about it, but it keeps life interesting.
I sometimes got very frustrated because they were trying to teach you about your own country. I would challenge that, saying “I’m sorry, but you guys keep thinking that you can tell us how Africa functions, but that is not how it is.” I joined the African Society there and it was really nice to challenge people to see Africa differently. In your North American countries, and I suppose it happens in Europe too, they sell the NGO world to you with little kids crying, looking like poverty. One organisation got you to donate and then they’d send you a picture of some kid that you are supposedly now supporting to put on your fridge. That really aggravates me that you can take a picture of one of our kids and put them on your fridge. You don’t know them, or their story, you can’t even pronounce their name and now you are feeling good about yourself for being their ‘saviour’. And that is a problem with a lot of NGOs, we sell poverty because we think that people will donate out of pity – we need to change that.
My Dad always encouraged me to volunteer.
He is a hardworking man. He always said that experience is the way to go, your education level is not going to cut it. He first made me sit in the Coca Cola offices as an assistant there and then I volunteered with Care International.That was quite interesting, they took us into the rural areas of Komasi in Ghana (where my parents were living when I studied in Canada). Unfortunately I didn’t understand half the time what they were talking about. They worked a lot with children who’d dropped out of school but were the breadwinners of their families. And I, at one stage, I said to my manager, “But this is child labour?” and he said to me, “that what you’ve just said is such a Western way of thinking, you need to redefine these concepts to an African context otherwise you are not going to survive.”
After my undergrad it was time to go home.
I had visited Cape Town once in 2010 and I wanted to see what it was like to live there. Arriving here, everybody told me I’m not going to find work – Cape Town is a tough place to find work and very expensive to live in. Coming back to South Africa, and especially here in Cape Town, it really started sinking in how separated people are. It seemed especially strange returning to this after living in Egypt and Canada where there are many immigrants. In Cape Town all this separation has a little to do with how the place is physically structured, but also simply that this country has a long way to go towards integration. We need to start talking to each other.
One Sunday I found myself in the United Church in Rondebosch with my mother. She got into a conversation with the man sitting next to her, telling him about me coming home after graduating in Canada, that I wanted to get into development work and so forth. He waited for us outside the church and said, “My name is David Harrison, I could help you get into the NGO world – come and see me on Wednesday.” So when I met with him he said they have an administration post open at the DG Murray Trust, and would I be interested? I had my interview right there and then. About a week later they called and offered me the job. That’s how I got my first job – it got me.
I started in the first week of February and thought I knew everything…
…having studied NGO things at a fancy overseas university and everything. I sat in that boardroom on the first day and realised I didn’t have a clue what these people were saying. They were talking in abbreviations and concepts and I sat there wondering what I studied because nothing was applicable.
At first, I just helped Sandra, Director of Operations, manage her and David’s calendars. I had to bind board packs, staple things together, prepare packs, prepare motivations. I was really just Sandra’s assistant. Then we got a new online grant management system and it was my job to capture everything that was paper-based onto the online system. I remember thinking, my Dad spent all this money on my education, but here I am binding board packs and capturing data. What?!! I really came down to earth quite hard, but it was very good. Slowly but surely, Sandra started trusting me more. She was a tough boss, a ‘tough love’ kind of boss – she knew exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it done. Working with her taught me quite a lot about work ethic and making sure that things were done right: check your spelling and don’t half-ass anything because she will notice. And time keeping… I am not a morning person and if I was late I had to explain why. That was really good, it taught me about self-discipline and what it is to work hard. She drilled you.
To feel South African is to be part of what is going on around us – being part of the conversations.
We are a really politically aware country because of our history, so standing around a ‘braai’ talking about these things, I think that is South African.
In South Africa we need to help each other to all be ok. You can’t be driving this and that car, and be all fancy while many people are starving – that is really not ok. Every small gesture of helping somebody helps, I think. Where I live there is a guy that offers to wash your car, many people are very rude to him because they are busy. Let him wash your car, give him that R50, you’ve made a difference in his life. There are little things that everybody can do to make everything gel a little better, and it doesn’t always have to be money. It shouldn’t be charity though; that is the other thing, I don’t think our country is going to go anywhere if everybody views every kind thing they do as charity. It is about being a decent human being, working together and making society better in itself. Nobody wants your charity either; nobody wants to be a charity case.
I joined the Activate! network in 2015…
…and that really helped me understand where people are coming from – where all the anger and the hurt are still coming from. It is easy to say apartheid happened 20 years ago and get over it, but its consequences are still very prevalent wherever we go. But it is good to see, especially in the Activate! Network, that there are space for dialogue, where people can express themselves. It is a conscious movement of young people trying to understand where each other are coming from and are willing to talk about it. They are not just ranting about it on social media and creating a big fuss, but are actually having a dialogue that good things can come from.
I was the only white person at the Activate! training. When I got there, I was like “damn, this is going to be uncomfortable, these people are not going to like me”. I was shy for the first couple of days and when people started opening up, I started opening up and we realised we feel similarly. I’ve made some amazing friends there, who have challenged me, but also just love you – it is the unconditional love in that network that I love. It was hard though; I didn’t want to be ‘the white voice’ there. One day we did an exercise where we had to stand on either side of a line (or on top of it) that showed our response to the question: “Do you feel South African?”. Many said yes, but I said I’m not sure. I told them sometimes it doesn’t feel like you guys think we (white people) are South African. That opened up into a very powerful conversation. Some of them agreed that they don’t think so, but others said, no, “you guys got stuck here, and you’ve now got to see it through with us.”
I feel it is every white person’s responsibility to talk to other white people about racism
It is not our place to talk about it in all situations. We’ve had a voice, it is time to give that voice away to other people whose voices have been suppressed, but we can definitely help our fellow white people try and get it – and by ‘it’ I mean that they have responsibility and that there is a mental shift that they need to make.
Many young white people say that racism wasn’t their fault, that they had nothing to do with it; that they are not racist and that they have black friends to prove it, but that’s not getting it. Getting it is really understanding that we are all stuck in this situation and the legacy of apartheid is not going away for a very long time. Yes, maybe you’re not racist, but are you doing anything to help the situation? Not being racist is not good enough – we need to educate each other. Even if we all had the same opportunity to go to school, you probably went to an Afrikaans school that offered a better education than where the kids in Khayelitsha go, and your parents had a higher income to support you in different ways. And perhaps your parents didn’t pay for university and you had to fight your own way, but you still had advantages that others did not have. When you hear other people making stupid comments, it is your responsibility to help them broaden their views.
In 2014 JobStarter happened!
Trying to figure out and work with our grant management system exposed me to the technical side of the NGO world. With this background I got drawn into a mobile learning project. JobStarter will launch hopefully this year in October as an internet platform that provides information to young people in high school; those that have dropped out of school; those who are looking for further education and training; and for those who are jobseekers. It will also provide mobile learning for foundational numeracy, work readiness and work orientation.Jobstarter launched in November 2016.
All the courses are written to help young people function better in the workplace through a self-driven, self-reflective process. In our second phase, we hope to launch a platform to link young people who have completed our courses, showing aptitude and determination, to employment. We are trying to redefine what employers are looking for. For many entry-level jobs, employers don’t need a Matric certificate, they need someone with the capacity to learn and the determination and the willingness to do it.
I enjoy my job. It is very challenging at the moment and out of my comfort zone. I’m writing and editing which I never thought I would do. I am also a boss for the first time in my life, so that’s a very big challenge for me. I am trying to mimic Sandra, you need some tough love, but at the same time you must be supportive. We are now working with many for-profit companies and it is interesting to see how everything functions outside of the NGO world – I’m learning a lot.
I think my education makes a difference on my CV, but have I been able to apply the theory I’ve learnt through my international education? No. I think what really determines your success in a job is how you learn and how you do each thing you have to do. Higher education probably expands your mind and teaches you a way of thinking, but I think your education level only makes a difference on paper. That gets you in the door, but it is up to you to sell yourself once you are in that door.
On the JobStarter platform we hope to teach young people how to sell themselves right, how to create their own brand of ‘who you are as a person’. It doesn’t matter if you have experience as a volunteer or as a CEO, identifying what you’ve learnt in that experience and how it helped you improve who you are – that is the selling point. I think young people have a problem getting to grips with this concept. They tend to send very generic, traditional CVs stating their education level and all the things they have done, but it does not show what makes them unique. It’s the experience, whether it is work experience or life experience, that really differentiates you from everyone else.
No job is a silly job.
You’ve got to work hard, even at those silly jobs. If you do it well, somebody will eventually notice your determination and your aspiration. It’s about taking steps – some are small and modest, but every step takes you further. I came out of high school, decided what I wanted to study and figured in a couple of years, I’m going to work for the United Nations or be some diplomat seeing the world. Nope! You start off by binding board packs… Welcome to reality!
What would I have done differently on my first job?
I wish I had been more confident to take part in discussions that happened. I was very shy and nervous for a long time because I was in a room with amazing, very clever people at the DG Murray Trust. I should have started exploring different projects and gotten more involved, instead of standing back and only doing admin and the behind-the-scenes kind of jobs.
How would I define myself?
Let’s say I’m a bit of hippie, I enjoy my hippie festivals, started my own food garden, love sci-fi, I’m a very big Star Wars, StarTrek and X-files fan, watched all of them many times. But I think in terms of South Africa and where my Afrikaans voice can come in, it’s in building consciousness around issues of race within my family, friends and my networks. Also expanding my networks to people who don’t have networks because that is a very big problem in South Africa. I’m hoping to soon volunteer with an organisation as a career guidance counsellor, drawing on the knowledge I’ve acquired through JobStarter, to give back in a practical way.
I love travelling.
Through travelling you realise that your own country is not that bad, and you get new ideas that you can take back home. Something else that I feel passionate about: excessive consumerism is not sustainable to our environment. I am gardening as much as the circumstances in my flat allows. During winter I grow kale and next year I will grow tomatoes and chillies.
I believe we can live in a better world than we are right now.
We’ve set up this entire world wrong, in a capitalistic society – there is something more to life than this. I always wanted to work with children. Kids have great potential but we lose out on that because of the way society is structured. Society boxes you in and tells you who you are from the day you are born. My mission is to tell people to forget how society boxed you.
I am most grateful in life for the opportunities I’ve been given.
My parents, for just saying “you’re coming to Egypt – this is going to rock your world.” My dad for working hard and giving me the best education I could have asked for. David for believing in me and Sandra, she really moulded me quite well. I am really enjoying my career so far – it’s been a little bit luck and a little bit hard work, but it offers the opportunity to really make a difference to society and that is what I am excited about.
My parents have my back
How would I want to be remembered? Sjoe.
Somebody who was not afraid to stand up and do what is right.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇧||Jobstarter launched in November 2016.|