Like most students in South Africa, my wife and myself decided to go on a working student holiday to the UK after we finished our studies. We had fun, but decided to come back after six months – we missed home way too much.
Now it was time to get a job. We both took jobs that paid the bills, but not what we had in mind as a career. Every day we will go through the newspapers and see what is available in line with our interests. We had different interests and had to look at different newspapers to make sure we cover all angles. Whenever we had a chance we would look for jobs for each other as well.
But it was a tough time to be a political scientist. No way in hell was I going to work for the Apartheid government – even though they already unbanned the ANC and released Nelson Mandela. I had the wrong degree to take any other job and had to settle for battling it out until something better came along.
And with so many exiles coming back, there were very few jobs open in more radical and left-leaning organisations. And, of course, I was a minor student activist at one of the most conservative universities in South Africa – not the right qualifications at that time in South Africa either.
I was browsing through the Cape Times, searching for a job for my wife, when I came across a very small ad for a developmental economist / researcher job for a trade union support organization. This was very, very odd. Not only because it was in the ‘General’ job section, but because of the newspaper that the ad was placed in. The Cape Times was the South African equivalent of the USA Today – full of short stories, bordering on tabloid news, and leaning slightly to the right. (Why did I read this? Hey, we only had two daily newspapers in the area I lived! And it was before the Internet took off.) Hardly anyone was going to see this ad stuck in a corner in the wrong newspaper.
This gave me the perfect incentive to try for the job. Hey, the competition was going to be weak and I might actually stand a chance. So I rang the number and it went through an agency they were using – Action Appointments. The person who spoke to me, Annelie Marais, sounded slightly taken aback when I said I was interested in the job. She eventually came out with her problem – after a few minutes of throat clearing and obviously stumbling around for the right words – and said: ‘Sorry sir, but our client is looking at an affirmative action appointment‘. I didn’t get it straight away, but she made it clear – her client wants a black person for the job. I was dissapointed, but thanked her for her time and said goodbye. I was just the wrong colour for this job.
I had no problem with affirmative action. In fact, I have always been a big supporter of affirmative action and would later become part of the group who would write this into policies and laws as we rewrote almost every piece of legislation in South Africa after winning the election in 1994. But it was the first time this was used against me – so it was a bit more personal.
I mulled it over for a few days and decided to give her another call. This time I mentioned to her that we spoke a few days earlier and that she mentioned that this position is an affirmative action position. I went further to say that she is the agent and do not make these decisions – she should at the very least forward my CV with all the other applicants and let the employer make the call. I would be more than happy to stick with their decision – but it was not her decision to make. She was very nice and tried to talk me out of it, but in the end agreed that because the ad did not say it was an affirmative action position, she would give my CV to the client – I also had a suspicion that she didn’t have too many CV’s to start off with due to the newspaper she picked. (Annelie and me became good friends later on, but we never spoke about how we met the first time).
And a few days later I got a call from Gordon Young, the founder and head of the Labour Research Services and highly respected in te labour movement, saying that he would like to interview me for the position of Developmental Economist / Researcher.
This was my big chance – and the process of trying to get this job was another experience all together.