I entered the world of work without really knowing it. We are programmed from a young age to work, contribute and be productive in society. I worked in varying dimensions from nursery school to university and here I am – concretised having inherited the tainted history of my previously liberated matriarchal foremothers. Even with this and regardless of the transactional nature of work, it is meant to be a means to build legacy, achieve one’s goals, realise their aspirations and to have a meaningful life. The material value we produce and are compensated for creating as black women in the world of work do not begin to amount to what we deserve and need in order to fulfil our aspirations. Our bodies, minds and spirits are the building brick of industry and communities which disconnect us from ourselves – disconnect us from them. Where is the balance that is supposed to exist between producing and benefitting? Distortion.
Our laws and legislation fall short and outright fail to create a foundation for the actualisation of this rationale. The state and people in power have left this work at a daydream, a pending reality because they refuse to engage the real work that needs to be done to address gender equality, inequalities of income and opportunity based on racial biases and gender-based violence (GBV). I’m wary of the government’s show of commitment to the achievement of full gender equality as stated in the constitution. Despite adopting and ratifying the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations framework for Sustainable Development Goals, they have shown a lack of adequate and sound frameworks in place to enable them to competently update and align the relevant laws towards these aims.
Working in the start-up landscape for the past couple of years for white male expat entrepreneurs has had a large impact on my life. For the purpose of the feelings that need to be carried in this narrative, I intentionally use the word expat which is loaded with connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege. The context that the word provides highlights the power dynamics that exist and persist in the marketplace as a result of how we identify ourselves and one another and how those identifications necessarily affect how we perceive one another. Consider for a moment how you think of a white male expat entrepreneur versus a fellow African woman born and raised in a neighbouring country with South African heritage. Both the white male expat and the African woman are working, contributing and being productive in South African society. What biases and stereotypes do you consciously and unconsciously assign to each person based on their race, gender, continent of origin and why?
When I started doing my research for this essay, I scoured the internet for information on the experiences of employees in start-up work environments and the challenges they face. I was not surprised that most of the articles and data were about the entrepreneur and the business. Never mind the employee – “we are but an afterthought, a means to deliver on promises made by the messiahs of developmental aspirations and goals to client and country.” From personal experience, it is undeniable that the challenges that these companies face can be felt throughout the ranks. From the fierce competition with other companies in their specific market segment, , unrealistic expectations and pressure from investors and funders to prove concept, scale and make waves, financial management and the intense desire by the client to have more than what they can afford in the quickest time possible .
Time and time again I have had to console and be consoled by others who are active and inactive in the work space and reminded about the ‘bigger’ picture. I have held onto the thought of “all the disadvantaged and vulnerable people who get the opportunity to better themselves by engaging with the award-winning innovative products and programs that I have helped bring to life”. I have repeated scripted words that sometimes invalidate my experiences to myself as if they were mantras at some hard turns. “At least I have a job, I can pay my bills and can be independent, I’m serving people who need it the most!”
The truth is the start-up space is a violent one. In these spaces that are oftentimes paternalistic and patriarchal in conduct and practice, I have been emptied, burnt out and have had my confidence unsettled with many of my dreams put on hold. After all my dedications to several life-changing missions, I cannot holistically afford to fund my small business, to go back to school so I can have a competitive edge in the marketplace or justify why I have not been promoted. In addition, my feminist and queer values have been belittled. More frequently now, I am triggered by the thought of my mother and how she cannot afford to stop working even at the age of 68. Another loud trigger I cannot ignore are the human and environmental violations that are taking place in Mpumalanga and other mining-communities in South Africa. What will the institutionalised and structural inequalities that persist in my various communities cost me and how much longer am I willing to pay this cost to survive and find meaning?
According to the UNHCR, “Gender-Based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious violation of human rights and a life-threatening health and protection issue.” GBV is a complex and widespread problem in South Africa and is deeply established in our institutions, culture and traditions. The way I see it, GBV is a business issue as much as it is a national issue. It is at best professional to confront what also goes on in the private realm of work.
In very recent years in South Africa, black women have been formally recruited into the marketplace, we sit on boards and have positions in management yet we are still restrained. GBV in work places manifests itself through toxic work cultures. For example, in a disproportionate work/life balance. It is normal practice for people in the start-up space to perform multiple roles, with no distinct title and a mismatched salary. Black women sacrifice their time, health and families to prove that they are worthy, capable of adding value and can stand out as stars among their other colleagues – men. We pride ourselves on never giving up and delivering on targets that are not well planned out and sometimes impossible. Most times, this work is not rewarded with promotion, recognition or non-financial rewards. Sometimes the companies do not have formal performance reviews and actively ignore opportunities to positively attend to our concerns and experiences of work life under their charge.
Companies represent themselves as an alternative family. In the unsafe and unhealthy environments, ‘the big boy’s roundtable’ that is made up of the expat white males and their exceptional entourage of privileged people reveal themselves as bullies and absent in their masculine relational style – which suffocates any other relational style. Those who embrace and move in life from a feminist and queer point of view are forced to step back or be put swiftly in their place. I have been retrenched and demoted from client facing roles to internal teams for being outspoken about unfair practice and toxic founder-management-employee dynamics. Navigating these challenges and negative tactics and displays of superiority such as sexism, micro-aggression, gaslighting and manipulation, control on an employee level can create intense unease and emotional conflict. On an organisational level the invalidation, overworking and other unfair practices can stigmatise and stall our careers.
It is for these reasons that it is important for us, an adolescent democracy, to understand the influence and power that work can have in our lives. It is professional for anyone engaged in the workspace to engage and openly speak about how to reclaim and redefine our own, unique world of work that is free from violence. If we are committed to addressing GBV holistically we need to take into consideration what we are willing to allow workplaces to expect from all employees. A reconsideration of current labour laws is possible – a focus on prevention and response in ways that allow for employees, most specifically black women to self-care and resist without fear of being reprimanded or demoted.
I am weary of paying the price for institutional and structural inequalities that exist in society, helping other people build their legacies while I can barely achieve my goals, aspirations and live a fulfilled soft meaningful life. My environment offers a unique opportunity – start-up spaces can be a good space to empirically capture, explore and design legal frameworks to address the specificities of the discrimination and violence that is faced by black women in the world of work. Perhaps then, black women can begin to enjoy and live within the balance that is supposed to exist between producing and benefitting. This can only become a reality if the government, labour lawyers, human rights defenders and policy makers work collectively to align the relevant laws towards these aims. It is my hope that the response efforts to unfair and toxic conduct and practices in the work space can be supported and complemented by prevention programming and policy development so GBV can be addressed comprehensively.