First sip: The Black Girl's Guide to Corporate South Africa by Lindelwa Skenjana

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Like a good beverage, a good book holds promise from the first sip. This extract is used with the permission of Tafelberg publishers.

About the author

Lindelwa Skenjana is an award-winning professional with over ten years experience in various sectors of the corporate world. She holds a master's in ICT's for Development from the University of Manchester.

Lindelwa is a founding member of Mbewu Movement, a young women's dialogue forum.

She lives in Johannesburg.

About the book

Title: The Black Girl's Guide to Corporate South Africa
Author: Lindelwa Skenjana
Publisher: Tafelberg
ISBN: 9780624090946
Date: April 2021

‘I want us – black women, who many times in history have been the least prioritised – to use our talents and tools and one another to reaffirm our voices and purpose. We need to normalise the opposite of every negative stereotype associated with us: pull-her-down syndrome, queen-bee syndrome, bitch, gossip …’ In this timely memoir-cum-guide, young corporate professional Lindelwa Skenjana shares insights from her own experience and those of other black women at various stages of their careers.

Her performance review of the corporate world lays bare many pitfalls – from racism, sexism, ethnic chauvinism and ageism to sexual harassment – that require savvy navigation. When technical expertise and hard work are not the issue, how do black women support each other to success?

What other options are there for millennials whose values may differ from those of the elders who traversed corporate South Africa before them?

First sip

Independence as heritage

All of the degrees I completed, I achieved with a level of financial distress. My mother never shared this with me at the time. She always just wanted me to focus on my books: ‘I want you to be independent, I want you to stand on your own two feet, live in your own house, drive your own car and not rely on anyone, but rely only on me when the need arises, for as long as I am alive, my child,’ she would say.

These words have stayed with me to this day. A male friend once asked me: ‘Do you think your mother conditioned you to be overly independent?’ No. My mother raised me to be confident and comfortable in my skin. She meant well.

Growing up she experienced women who would stay in unhappy relationships because they depended on that partner or relative. I have grown to understand that independence is not expressed in any one way. When I was younger I interpreted it as not needing help, not asking anyone for help, figuring it all out for and by myself.

Now that I am older, I see and am open to interdependence.

We all live on one planet for a reason, and that reason is to see how we can coexist, co-create, collaborate.

The financial burden of wanting a better life for your children, such as my mother had, is what makes me resonate with all the student protests that spread like a wildfire through South Africa many years after I had completed my studies. The#FeesMustFall movement, a student-led protest movement, gained traction and public attention in 2015. I remember feeling both guilty and having a great sense of pride at what the students had been brave enough to execute. I felt guilty because my generation is one that was aware of most oppressive regimes that black people had had to live through anywhere in the world. However, the outlook was to grit our teeth and push through so we could be the change we wanted to see in the world. The focus was on acquiring the education our families had not achieved, at whatever cost. The aspiration was on being ‘the first’ in our families to do so and make their investment in us pay off and to make them proud. The obsession was to succeed, do better and to provide better for our families. I felt guilty because the#FeesMustFall students probably wanted the same, but they were brave enough to spark a movement so selfless, to fight for all students who felt excluded by the structural architecture of the system, and to address the psychological effects of that system. The system has very specific criteria and it favours certain people over others, determining whether you make the progress you want. Most importantly, you experience the system differently based on what your last name is.

This is fundamentally what the students were fighting to relook at and redefine for themselves and those coming after them.

Paying my journey forward

As you can see, my situation and upbringing is a mixture of both enabling and what some would consider disabling factors. Overall, despite the challenges, I had a privileged start to a corporate career. I had the technical knowledge and networks of a top South African university, and the love and financial support of a parent and much older siblings.

My brothers have followed successful professional careers. I have aunts and uncles in the judicial, medical and education fields, among others. Their positive influence made them tangible examples I could see and touch. My godmother is a specialist medical doctor and her husband was a successful architect.

I am now a senior manager in my early thirties, and have made progress in the system of corporate South Africa despite the odds. I want to share my journey honestly, to help others. I have laid this book out in the order that a typical corporate career follows after you finally get the piece of paper that recruiters list under ‘requirements’: first a degree, then an internship, then an entry-level managerial or professional position, then a mid-level management position, and finally senior management. Everyone’s professional career may be different in the future, or may have been different in the past, give or take a step. So much of this depends on factors that are outside of one’s control. That said, I have included the experiences of other black women at every stage, so that we can share our wisdom, insights and survival strategies and not feel so alone. We usually get books about corporate South Africa from the older black generation of successful professionals who first navigated these waters decades ago. The dynamics have shifted, and we need discussions that take that into account.

In South Africa, unemployment is a debilitating reality for many young people – black people in particular. Being a full-time employee has become a privilege for many. While the unemployment rate is relatively lower for graduates than it is for people who do not have tertiary qualifications, there is also a worrying upward trend of unemployed degree-holders. A demographic analysis of unemployment statistics reveals continuing patterns from our ugly past, in particular the history of unequal access to opportunities, due to discriminatory laws that were based on race and gender.

At all stages of one’s career, as one moves up the corporate ladder, if one dares to look beyond the veneer of transformation, the same racialised and gendered dynamics manifest that mirror the biases of society. As ostensibly new challenges present themselves, these biases shape the lived experiences of black people – and black women in particular – differently. Using my story as a young black woman, I hope to help those coming after my generation of professionals and leaders, especially in corporate South Africa. My wish is to witness, in the near future, young African female professionals being unapologetically themselves at work, and fully expressing who they were born to be, regardless of the organisational space in which they find themselves. It is important that we do not allow institutions that were created centuries before we were born, and designed to constrain us, to dictate how we behave.

We must instead challenge those institutions that claim that they exist to serve ‘the people’ and that their products and services exist to make the lives of ‘the people’ better.

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