job


You Americans. You are a damn funny bunch. Doomsayers. Hehehe! The world isn’t going to come to an end. Your life will still be fine. Really. I promise you. No, I am not talking about the economy. I’m talking about the election coming up in November.

I find it amazing how people paint the worse possible outcome if any of them wins. Oh, it’ll be the end of America as we know it. Depending on who wins the scenarios are either America will be taken over by hardline Christians or fundamental Muslims. Far-right racists or a bunch of bleeding heart liberals. Abortions will take place left, right and centre or individual rights like choice will be taken away forever. America will go into more wars and stay in Iraq forever or be to weak to attack anyone who threatens. Americans will be forced to pay through their necks for a proper health-care system that will cover everyone or the poor will be left behind to die alone without any care. America will be taxed to death to look after the poor or the rich are going to get richer. The corporate world will be regulated to a level where they won’t be able to compete or corporate interests in DC will reach new highs. A black guy or a women… Oh, wait – that one might actually be true. Hahaha. Come on people. Stop drinking the Kool-Aid. You remind me a bit of South Africa back in 1994 when we had our first democratic election.

My dad and my wife’s dad panicked. What will happen if the ANC wins the election. What will happen if we have a black government. Oh God forbid that ever happens. It will be the end of the world as we know it. Oh the country will come to a standstill. Traffic lights (or robots as we call it) will stop working. Electricity will stop running.  Gas stations (petrol pumps back home) will run out of petrol. Taps will run dry. And worse of all – the grocery stores will have empty shelves. We will even run out of beer. And that would be bad. Especially if you are South African.

So they stockpiled. They bought canned food – corned beef (or bully beef as we call it) and candles were all the rage back then. Man, my dad bought so much of the stuff he could have opened his own little underground shop if he wanted. And then they started with us. Telling us we must stockpile. Get ready because it is the end of the world as we know it. But they didn’t know the next line of that R.E.M. song – And I feel fine. Because this election was what I fought for and dreamed of. Free, free at last. But we were poor then – my wife and myself. So we couldn’t really say no to any money they were going to throw our way. But it was a bit of a dilemma – we couldn’t lie to them either. Just not ethical. So we divised a little plan. We took the money and stockpiled. Let me qualify that a bit. We did the alternative version of stockpiling. We bought mussels, prawns, perlemoen, crayfish, steak and champagne. All those things we could never afford to buy! We stockpiled to celebrate the win! In style baby.

Well, as you might know I didn’t get along with my dad. But when he died he still had candles and bully beef stuck in his grocery racks. All from back in 1994. Because the stores were stocked and open the next day. And the taps ran crisp clear water. And the electricity kept on going. And the petrol pumps were ready to fill you up. And the banks still had your money in their vaults. Yes. South Africa carried on as the usual. Just as a free and democratic country for the first time. Oh, we had one little problem. We had one huge hang-over from the parties that just went on and on. But no one bitched about that!

So, you see, the more things change the more they stay the same. America will not face what we faced back in 1994. A moment that defines our place in history. The end of an oppressive system. And freedom at last. You don’t need to stockpile. Because whoever wins will not be the worse case scenario you are so frightened of. Yes, McCain will be more ready to go to war and stay in Iraq. And yes, some of the rights America fought for so hard will remain under pressure. And he’ll pander to the right and flip-flop when he doesn’t “misspoke” or forget who is who. And he’ll be bad from a foreign policy perspective. And Hillary will be a hawk. Ready to go to war and obliterate anyone who steps on her toes. And she’ll be more of an empty bag of little substance than most. Dodging bullets and making peace/war wherever she goes (you pick – war in Iraq and peace in Northern Ireland). And yes, Obama is more of an idealist. And idealist who paints a picture of what America should look like tomorrow. And he’ll be more likely to speak and seek peace and compromise than go into war. And he is more wonky than he other two. And yes, he and Hillary are more likely to bring in a universal health-care and strengthen social services. But come one people. They are proud Americans who will give their all to make this great country even greater.

Your water will still drip from the taps. Gas will still flow from the pumps – even if it is a bit more expensive than yesterday. Food will still be at a reasonable price. Your lights will still burn when you flip the switch. Roads will still be fine even if you need to invest in them a bit more. You’ll still have unemployment – but at a low rate. The dollar will still be the global standard. And the world will still catch the flu if you sneeze. You will be just fine. Just fine. Really no need to stockpile.

In actual fact, you will be better than where you are today. And you will hopefully rally behind your new President and tell him/her to go and make you proud. To run this country like a President. Remember. They are willing to do so. They are willing to stand the public attacks from you and their election opponents. They are willing to be scrutinized. At least show some respect for that. You deserve better.

No. Your country deserves a better you. A you that act like a proud and patriotic American. Not like a spoilt child that fears anything and everything. Your country deserves a you that remembers that this country is about what you do to make it better. And it starts with how you will support your new President. And how you treat your own people. Those who are willing to stand up and be counted. Be critical, but don’t be destructive. That is not the American way. Or so I was told.

You don’t need to stockpile. Maybe just a little on decency and on guts. But don’t fear tomorrow. It’s not the of the world as you know it and you’ll feel fine.

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No really, hear me roar. Because there is no way that you will make sense of anything else I have to say. This bloody accent of mine. I don’t even think I will able to understand it if I heard it coming from your mouth. It’s just a shame I can’t write in an accent. Maybe I should do a podcast and see how many people switch off from this blog. “Hello, this is Angry….” Click. Thanks so much for your commitment…

Okay, I used to argue that I have no accent. That you all have accents and not me. Oh I can quote you studies by Oxford University proving that South Africans have the purest English “accent” out there. That we speak English the way it was intended by God or whoever made the rules of English. The Queen I guess.

But I am so damn wrong about that. You see, I am not English. Fatal flaw number 1. I can only have the purest “accent” (or non-accent) if I actually qualified as an English South African. I am not. But it came as a bit of a shocker to realize that I have one damn heavy bloody accent. I never heard it before. Until yesterday.

We had this guy from South Africa visiting our offices today. Of course, as the resident foreigner and South African, I had to go to the meeting. (I was also secretly hoping the guy would bring some biltong and Castle – but no bloody luck with that either.) He was from my hometown – Cape Town. I guess they also wanted me to translate for them. This guy had a heavy accent. Or so I thought.

I introduced myself and we were walking and talking on our way to the meeting-room. (Small world – we went to the same primary school.) All I heard was “Ja, man” and “lekker“. I thought the team might have some trouble understanding him, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. Or they were doing a pretty good job acting as if they understood what he had to say. But the meeting went well. He was a typical South African. On top of his game and as sharp as a needle in a condom factory. Sharp enough for you to think it’s all going to go very wrong any minute. But he was good – he made me proud. Even with the accent.

I saw him out afterwards and made him promise to bring me some Castle, biltong and a few other goodies next time he comes to visit. He should have known that any honorable South African will never fall for bribes of diamonds or riches – but a well placed can of Stoney and a packet of Simba Chutney can swing a deal in seconds. A lesson I hope you learned young man. Don’t let me repeat myself.

Anyway, after a few comments that included “lekker“, “boerewors” and “moerse” we said “cheers” and off he went. Nice guy. I rejoined Ms C, my colleague and friend, to download. But first I had to check on the accent. So I asked her, “Tell me I don’t have an accent as heavy as that”. She looked at me, laughed and said, “You sound just like him”. Damnit.

She even reminded me that he used words that only South Africans use – like thumbsuck. And that she looked at me to see if I realized he used the word – they make fun of some of my expressions at work all the time. Fun in a good way. And thumbsuckis one of those words I use often. It means to create something from nothing. Like in “I created the data from nothing – I thumbsucked the data”. Damnit. I didn’t even blink when he said it – it was just English to me. Damnit.

No wonder we always need a translator when we go to meetings. I remember one of my first meetings facing a new client. I kept on talking about the data we were using to support our argument. And the potential client just stared blankly at me. Not a clue of what I was saying. So Ms M stepped in to say that I mean data. Pronounced completely differently. I pronounce it da-ta – the “a” pronounced like in the “a” in “la” ( as in “do re me fa so la te do”). Not day-ta. Thanks Ms M. And she’s pretty good at understanding and translating what I have to say. And makes it sound even better than what I actually meant to say.

(Another word is Iraq. I pronounce it E-Raq – standard “a” as above – while Americans pronounce it Eye-Rack. No wonder MediCare makes so many mistakes. You try and fill in those prescriptions without making a mistake baby.)

Anyway. Another favourite expression of mine is used when someone asks me how long something will take or how much it would cost or how involved it would be. My response? “How long is a piece of string?” You see, I can’t tell you how long the piece of string is until I have more information – and the same detail is needed to answer the other questions. I still get blank stares for that one. And a few laughs from our team.

But the accent do have distinct advantages. I can pretty much say whatever I want and people will smile and believe me. I sound so… worldly. You want to talk development? Who better than someone with an accent and from Africa. You want to talk about the global economy? Who better than someone with an accent who lived on a few continents already. Like my boss and friend Mr M says – I can kill someone and get away with it if I just keep on talking and smiling.

Yes, my accent. Not easy to understand, but it comes in handy. I generally call myself the pretty accent in the corner. We can use it when we need to because it does tell the listener that I might have a different perspective – and I get their attention. Especially over here in the US where accents are still a bit of a novelty. I mean really, you guys think every and any Englishman on the big screen must be a great actor – just because he has an accent! Hugh Grant anyone?

Of course the accent helps me get away with silly comments and general stupidity because of the way it sounds. I am the Hugh Grant of my profession. No matter how stupid I actually am, my accent makes me sound smarter and wiser than what I really am. And better looking.

WTF? Yes, better looking. Or at least marginally more attractive. Okay, more acceptable for public viewing. Just. Barely less horrifying than Freddy Krueger on a bad night. Children run away screaming their little heads off when they see me, but hang on to every word I say when they hear me speak. Scary looking, but with the accent still a huge improvement over my non-accented self. Last week Friday I was talking to a few of my younger colleagues at work – a young guy and two young women, one who just joined us. And the other young women looked at our new colleague and said that I have the coolest and nicest accent she has ever heard. Aah, always good for the ego of any (almost) middle-aged man. Even if he has his own little accent of love. My wife. The one with the purest accent of all. Or rather, as an English South African – the one with the non-accent. Just music to my ears and heart.

So hear me roar. That’s about all you will understand. But take it from me (imagine an accent saying this) – the accent makes me wise and cool. And a little bit better looking than with my mouth shut. I have the data to prove it.

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I thought I liked him. You know the guy called Spitzer. The legal Rambo. The Sheriff of Wall Street. The big man for the little man. But I really didn’t know much about him. Just what I read in the newspapers and web while in South Africa and in the UK. He wasn’t big news there. Just little bits of news as he took on the big guys. From over there it looked like he was on the side of the little guy. Getting under the skin of big business and anyone with a vested interest or something to hide. A Robin Hood character. What wasn’t there to like. And it looked like New Yorkers agreed with me.

Oh well. Then he had to go and sleep with a hooker. Sorry prostitute. I mean sex worker. (We still don’t have a politically correct word for this old profession). I have to admit I was surprised. I ignored the initial rumours. Thinking that it was just some right winging again. But no. Not this time. He did it and he had to come out with the truth. He paid for sex. So what’s the problem?

If only he was French. The Frogs would have looked at you for a while with squinty eyes while taking a drag of their Gaulloises, shrugged their shoulders, blow a smoke ring nonchalantly, and say Cest La Vie, before taking a sip of a small cup of coffee. For the French it is nothing but a national pastime for politicians. It is something you have to do to qualify as a French politician. You will be seen as a political novice if you don’t have some mistress or prostitute on the side. You know, similar to getting a free lunch or boat paid by a lobbyist in the US. Forget about it being about some lefty thing in France. The current President Sarkozy just got married to another woman. His mistress for the last few years. And he was married to someone else when he got elected. But everyone knew his wife wasn’t his lover. Hell, she was having a relationship with another politician while married to Sarkozy. I don’t know. It must be something to do with the wine and baguettes because they don’t have enough pharmaceuticals in their water to justify all the sex going around in politics. For the French it is just being French. Spitzer would have been seen as a bit of a latecomer – wet behind the ears. His visits to the prostitutes would have been a right of passage. You know. Him getting to grips with politics and a show of force to convince people he is ready to take the next step in his political career. Unfortunately, he isn’t French.

It wouldn’t have gone down well in South Africa though. Yes, the newly elected leader of the ANC in South Africa, Zuma, has a few wives. He is on number five – one died and another divorced him. No wait. It would have been okay in South Africa. We are a conservative bunch in South Africa. All of us, really. But we also know that there are more important things we expect from a leader than how many wives or husbands he or she has. We want them to govern our country with special care. Especially because we have so many things we still need to do to fight poverty – and so little resources to do it with. But there is an even bigger reason why we tolerate it. We know from our history of Apartheid that we have to be tolerant of different cultures and traditions. We are sick and tired of people telling us how we should live our lives according to their principles. Yes, we have to fight injustice, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t mean a new form of cultural oppression. We are tolerant because we know what happens if you are not. But there is a line that Spitzer would have crossed in South Africa. Prostitution. It is rife in South Africa. But it is seen as a big no-no to be caught – politician or not. You can sleep with family members and friends, but not pay for sex. That just isn’t done. So it wouldn’t be okay in South Africa – sorry it took a while to make up my mind there. South Africa is a complex place full of contradictions. But Spitzer would have been outta there as fast as you can say “zip it up baby“.

It would also be a big no-no in the UK. Those prudes in England don’t like their politicians to be to open in their relationships. Remember, an Englishman’s home is his castle. What goes on behind closed doors is one thing. But it is a no-no to do anything in public – or get caught doing it. Get caught and it’s the end of your career. The only people who can come back from something like this would be a Tory. It’s expected that they would be caught with some leather gear, a whip and a gay lover. But that is only meant to happen at the end of your career. Not when you are on a high.

So the US is not like France. More like the UK? Not really. See, it should be unacceptable for us on the side of the Democrats. Especially for us on the slight left of centre. Why? Because this is what those right-wingers would love to see us do. They wish this upon us. It is not okay to sleep around. It is only okay to make war – not love. We live under different rules than them. Rules they make and rules we make.

The rules they make says that we on the (slightly) left – the liberals – are all about free love and orgies. That’s why youngsters join us – they live in hope. But turn conservative when they get older and realize that it was a false promise. Okay, seriously. They have different rules for us and when something like this happens it is a double whammy for them. They said it was going to happen and it did. Eventually. If it happened to one of them? Just someone who went of the rails a bit. Then we have to forgive them and love them. And suckers that we are – we do. We can’t allow Spitzer to get away with this because it plays into their hands. It allows them to “show” people how promiscuous we are. How morally corrupt we are. It gives them a chance to say, “See, I told you so“. When Spitzer did this he gave them the ammunition to hurt us all and what we stand for. We have to show tolerance when they do it, but we don’t have the luxury to be tolerant when one of our own do it.

Those are the rules we have to live by. We expect more because we know they are looking. We expect less of them because we know how the human mind works. That it is fallible and weak. That it will cave in under all the pressure and seduction of power. We know that this is a human weakness and that is why we should not tolerate it. They don’t acknowledge their own weakness and we know they are therefore bound to fail. But we know better and should therefore be particularly aware of being strong in times of weakness. For us there should be no second chance in the public eye. A second chance in life? Yes – but not in the public eye. At least not now. Maybe once he has shown that he can be trusted with our support and beliefs – but we need time for that to happen.

And there is another more personal reason why we should be outraged. We admired him for always fighting for what was right. Fought for the little guy. We believed that he fought for what was right. But he lived a lie because he didn’t fight for the most important little guy out there. He didn’t fight for his wife and three daughters. His family. Because his family is our family. For that he should go and ask for their forgiveness first. And he should leave and live that forgiveness first.

Hard? Yes. But we don’t have the luxury of second chances right now. Not now while they are looking. We forgive him for what he did. He will always be one of us. But we can’t forget. Not now. And for that reason he should go. He should go and come to us. He should go and live with his family again.

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Erm… Hum, that’s a lie. I tell you, joining Oxfam was one of the most stressful times in my life. No, let me rephrase that. Trying to get a job at Oxfam was the most stressful time of my life. Bloody hell, it was difficult. And took forever. Well, it all started back in 1999.

We started looking at Oxfam as a serious option shortly after I got back from the WTO Battle of Seattle. They were (and remains) pretty much the Exxon of non-profits – the biggest amongst giants, and polluting everything and everyone along the way. (Sorry, more detailed Oxfam bashing will come in future blogs).

All I had to do was send off my artificially enhanced resume and they’ll throw jobs at me. It was going to be easy. Hey, who wouldn’t want to hire me? We were so sure that by 2000 we would be sipping Gin and Tonic on our estate in Oxfordshire. I just had to find the right job to match my experience and skills.

Step 1: Find the job… somewhere… anywhere… just find the bloody thing.

But finding the job wasn’t as easy as what we thought. Where the hell do we start? Hey, their website of course. Uh, no. It was still early days on the Internet. Oxfam tend to forget that for most people in Africa the Internet doesn’t exist. And those few who had it was (is) still using bog standard landlines to connect. Trying to access the Oxfam website was like trying to read War and Peace – you knew it was possible, but it wasn’t going to happen in a day. Nope. Just click on the Oxfam website and go out to play a game of footie outside. Follow this up with dinner and a trip to the bar and you might be fortunate enough to have opened the front page. Never mind the job search section. And we would have had a blackout by this stage in any case. Or the line would have been disconnected. Meaning that we have to start the process all over again. If you haven’t been to the bar yet – start going, because you will need the drink to stay calm.

Oxfam, and almost every other bloody website in the world, forgets that the more complex and colourful your site, the more likely it would mean more time needed to upload. Not a problem if you have broadband (or DSL in those days), but a huge problem if you still used landlines. The site might look pretty, but my reactions weren’t.

So off to the papers and magazines, right? That should be easy. But where do you start? Oxfam hardly published their jobs in our local paper Eikestadnuus. The Economist? Hardly – only the really senior positions that no African will be asked to fill. I needed something a little lower down the ranks. But I was in luck, The Guardian (Oxfam’s favourite daily) had a deal with my weekly newspaper – The Mail & Guardian. And some of those Oxfam jobs actually slipped through cracks and made it into the newspaper. And then I hit another snag. Most of the jobs was already closed off for applications by the time it was advertised in the M&G. Back to square one – the damned web.

We eventually narrowed our searches down to about ten different places – a handful of newspapers (local and global) and a few (African) user friendly websites that posted the Oxfam jobs on their sites. Now we were ready to rock and roll. Oxfam here I come.

Step 2: Apply… and apply… and apply… don’t stop for anything.

Which job should we apply for? There are so many. Do I want to be a researcher or a campaigner or a field worker or a policy adviser? And do I want to research or advise on debt or coffee or disasters or multilateral trade or what? And do I want to work for Oxfam International or Oxfam Great Britain or Novib (Oxfam Netherlands) or Oxfam Canada 1 or 2 (typical of the Canadians, they had to have two – a French one and an English one). I can’t even decide which socks to wear or whether the socks should be matching or whether to wear socks at all, how am I going to pick one from this smörgåsbord of options? (Like the spelling? I checked it up on Wikipedia). This needed some serious thinking and consultations.

Well, after careful consideration by the Get-The-Damn-Job Committee, weeks of meticulous planning and re-planning by the Just-Make-A-Bloody-Decision Task Team, and independent advice by a group of even more independent consultants headed up by McKinsey & Company, we came up with a plan. We decided to take the shotgun approach.

This carefully worked out strategy is based on the principle of beggars can’t be choosers. Instead of aiming at a specific target, this Einsteinish theory argues that either you are good enough for all the available jobs or that you might find one sucker at Oxfam that will be dazzled by your amazingly crafted resume. And who wouldn’t see the stretched truths and value added pieces of fiction that litters your resume. The shotgun approach reasons that at least one of the pellets will hit a target. No one said that it needed to be the right target. Remember, Oxfam is the target and it doesn’t matter which targeted Oxfam it hits. It just needs to hit something.

So we carefully crafted applications ranging from CEO of Oxfam to shop assistant in Mable Hall. Something had to give. Sorry Jack, a target will be hit.

Step 3: Aim low… remember where you come from.

It did became very apparent that I wasn’t going to be employed as CEO. Or in any senior position that matched my South African position in any way. I am not trying to brag, but I got to a very senior position in South Africa in a very, very short period of time. So I initially expected the job at Oxfam to be on more or less the same level. But no. They weren’t going to employ someone from Africa into a senior position. I mean really. What do we know of the world? The fact that we work and live in the places that they are meant to work for didn’t matter to them. No. The colonialist blood ran thick. They employ their own people at the top and might throw a few of us in there to show their diversity. But they were pretty English and white at the top. And remains so.

But it didn’t bug me too much. I was a Director in South Africa and I wouldn’t employ any of them at a senior position in South Africa. So I guess it was just more than fair that they play the same game in their backyard. I just swallowed hard and went for a few positions below what I wanted. But this was about getting the opportunity to prove myself. Getting that break. And once I get it I will work my butt off to prove my worth to them. The revolution will start once I get in. The job I get was going to be a Trojan horse.

But, of course, I had a family to feed. It took some hard decisions and harder words from my wife, but she decided that it was something she wanted all of us to do. So tighten the belts a bit and stop thinking of the estate in Oxfordshire. Maybe the counsel estate will have to do.

So we focused a bit more on the lower end of the scale. And got cracking on those applications again. And enjoyed it while we could. Once we accepted the lower end job we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the luxury of licking stamps. And we prepared for the move. I was sure that it was going to happen any day soon.

Step 4: Hang in there… this might take a while… just don’t stop.

What is taking them so long? This is like watching a kettle boil or asking an Englishman for directions. It takes for bloody ever. Now remember, I started applying for Oxfam jobs back in 1999. I expected it to be all done and dusted within a few weeks. A few months at most if we include the visa applications. But really. Months went by without as much as a word from Oxfam.

I was sure that it had something to do with the telephone system. So we checked and double checked our connections. Checked if our emails are being delivered and Oxfam wasn’t on a overly sensitive anti-spam system of our service provider. But not a peep from them. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Fuck all.

That’s when I read the fine print. Apparently they don’t send you a note to either confirm that they got your application or if you were unsuccessful. Obviously the last one couldn’t be relevant to me. Why would they not want to hire me? It must be the postal system. I am sure our government got a sniff that I might be leaving and would do all in their power to stop the brain drain. That was the only logical explanation. And the few rejection letter that came my way was delicately planted by government agents working on keeping me in South Africa.

So I just kept on applying for more jobs at Oxfam. Sometimes ten at a time. Week in and week out. And I smiled every single time I got a rejection or no reply. I knew that every time they rejected me or ignored me I was getting closer and closer to that one job. This was just the law of averages. You have to go through so many disappointments before you could get to that one job that was just right. So I knew I was getting closer to the one. I forgot that I learnt in science that no matter how many times you test the law of gravity – the result will remain the same. (okay, just in case the geeks are trawling this blog – the law of gravity doesn’t work 100% in quantum physics). But you get what I mean – repeated failure doesn’t always get you closer to success. But I had to believe.

Step 5: Get the interview… not the job.

And then I got the call. All the way from Phil Twyford, Advocacy Director for Oxfam International. He wanted me to come up to Brussels for an interview for a position as lobbyist at the European Commission. Man was I exited. I prepared like hell. read everything that I could. Studied like I’ve never studied before. Flew over to Brussels and completely froze at my first interview. I was way over prepared and when they stuffed up my schedule I didn’t react the way I should have – I panicked and just plainly had a bad interview. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But I did feel that I wasn’t on top of my game. I was not focused enough. I wanted the job a little too much. But it was a lesson learnt. Don’t go for the job. Go for the interview. That’s why they invited you in the first place. So we were back at square on after almost 2 years of failed applications and one interview. Man did I feel shit and almost gave up. But we started sending off those new applications the next day.

This time we didn’t have to wait too long though. Nope. The next one came a few months later. This time by another Phil. Phil Bloomer who was then the Head of Advocacy at Oxfam Great Britain. He wanted me to come and speak to them about the position at the WTO. This time it went like a dream. I nailed everything and then some. They loved me. I knew more about the WTO than all of them put together. And, as a previous WTO negotiator, I had a trunk full of contacts. But I still didn’t get the job. They loved me but they needed someone to start immediately and although I knew more than anyone else, they just couldn’t wait the few months that it was going to require to get me my visa. For some or other reason the WTO wasn’t willing to postpone their Ministerial meeting for a few months either.

My last words to Phil was to say thanks for the opportunity, but, make no mistake, I will be working for you guys very soon. And it was just a few months later that I got another call from Phil. He wanted me to come over and talk to them about a job as Policy Adviser, Private Sector. And that was the one we were waiting for.

The law of averages worked. It’s a numbers game. I had to apply for about 500 jobs to get 3 interviews to land one job. Did it get me down? Yes. Did I felt like giving up at times? Yes! Did I feel shit when I didn’t get the job? Absolutely. Would I do it all over again? Without a doubt. It was as easy as pie.

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I got my big break – an interview with Gordon Young for a job as Developmental Economist / Researcher at the LRS (Labour Research Services). The LRS was the leading trade union support organization in South Africa. Well respected by overseas donors and at the center of policy making in the trade union movement. And it played a huge role in the anti-Apartheid movement during the struggle years.

Of course I knew nothing about all this when I got the call from Gordon Young. Hey, I applied for a job that was advertised in the wrong newspaper. And I was only a minor player in the anti-Apartheid movement at my university. How was I supposed to know who they were? I would have thought that it had something to do with taxes if someone mentioned the LRS to me.

But I managed to wing it at the interview. Gordon and myself did not hit it off straight away. I think that he thought I was a bit of a lightweight. He was right of course, but he also realized that I knew research methodology inside out. And that, combined with the lack of competition, got me through to the final round of interviews. With the LRS partner – NACTU – that I will be working with.

Again, I knew nothing of NACTU. Absolutely nothing. Thanks to my Apartheid education, I was never taught anything about trade unions in South Africa – not even at university. Never mind the smaller of the three trade union federations.

My initial research also let me down. I thought NACTU stood for the National Azanian Council of Trade Unions. It made sense. NACTU was closely aligned with the black consciousness movement and had close ties with organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) – two of the dominant black consciousness organizations in the fight against Apartheid. But I was wrong – although they were somewhat aligned with the PAC, NACTU stood for the National Council of Trade Unions. And their members had the freedom to choose who they wanted to support politically.

But I didn’t do that much research, thinking that I can wing it again as I did with Gordon. All I knew was that NACTU was a trade union federation and that the job would focus on supporting them with research.

Gordon told me I was to meet Cunningham in Johannesburg. If he liked me I would get the job as he would indirectly be my boss. Hey, they pay my salary – I just work for the LRS.

I started picturing Mr Cunningham. He sounded like a typical middle aged white English guy – most likely from the ‘old country’ – England.

I got on the plane to Johannesburg from Cape Town to meet Mr Cunningham at the NACTU offices. Grabbed a taxi from the airport and off I went to Fox Street in the center of Jo’burg. I was shitting myself as I have only been to Jo’burg a few times, and the horror stories people told me sounded like something from Gotham City – muggings, car hijacking, stabbings etc. Not the place for a young white boy from a small town. But I made it to the NACTU offices in one piece.

As I entered the NACTU offices I immediately realized that I have never seen so many black people in one office. Everyone was black. It was a bit of a cultural shock – but a pleasant one. At last I found a place that looked like it represented South Africa. Anti-Apartheid slogans and pictures were posted all over the walls – clenched fists and all. I thought it was odd that a white middle aged English guy would head up all of this, but this is South Africa and anything is possible.

So I sat around and waited for Mr Cunningham to come and call me for my interview. A tall, thin black guy in overalls walked past me and stopped. He looked back at me and said – ‘You must be Henk’. He came over and introduced himself. ‘Hi Comrade, I am Cunningham. Cunningham Ncgukana’. He wasn’t even middle aged.

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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.

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The Oxfam Coffee Campaign – or Mugged – was the major Oxfam campaign in 2003. And it was timely. Coffee prices were at an all time low and coffee farmers were suffering. And it helped bring to life the struggles farmers face in the current multilateral trade system – a global trade system that held very little benefit for the small farmers.

It had all the ingredients for a successful Oxfam campaign – a product that people consume in abundance (coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world – only oil beats it), an alternative with a catchy name – Fair Trade, the faces of African farmers on all materials to get supporters going, and well known brands that people could brand as the ‘evil predators’ – Nestle, Kraft, P&G and Sara Lee. A lethal combination and the bread and butter of campaigning. And luck was on my side – a few things went my way and I was asked to head up the campaign a few months after joining Oxfam in 2002. (Previous campaign lead Sophia Tickell left within a few months of me joining Oxfam).

I thought we had a good campaign. We asked coffee companies, or Roasters as we called them, to commit to very specific actions to help address the coffee crisis. And many of the companies we targeted did take up our challenge – not all of them, but at least a few did. I thought we should ‘celebrate’ our first year of the Mugged campaign by doing some proper quantitative research to assess whether the Roaster did what we asked them to do. It was going to be easy – tick the box and move on. We even came up with the idea of giving companies a report card to show the progress they made. And the campaign anniversary took place in September when so much focus would be on the report cards kids receive at school – easy publicity.

But there was a major problem I did not even think of – what will happen if one or more of the companies passed? For me it was easy – if you pass you pass. It would show people that progress has been made and that we can be part of the change we want – that their support and our campaign can make a real difference. And that we are grownup enough to tip our hat to those companies who recognize their mistakes and made the changes we asked them to make.

We did our best research and even developed a ‘bean count’ system – 0 was ‘ just not coffee’ and 5 was ‘the fairest brew’. And the nightmare began when we realized that the most boycotted company in the UK, and major campaign target, Nestle passed the test. Most people just couldn’t stand the possibility of acknowledging anything good at Nestle – never mind saying publicly that they did okay in doing what we asked them to do. It just wasn’t cricket.

Still, for me it was easy. We had to do what was right – report our findings. I had a daughter that just started school and wouldn’t want anyone to move the goalposts for her when it came to school. And I couldn’t do it to someone else – even if I didn’t like them. So I stuck to my guns and argued that we should do what was right and acknowledge that companies made progress and that they got a pass on their report card. Mind you, they didn’t get A’s in our initial research – they got C’s. A pass, but not a good pass – ‘room for improvement’, ‘work harder’ and ‘showing promise’ would be the taglines that would accompany the report cards. Not glowing grades, but a pass nevertheless.

I had to go on a trip and left the work for others to complete – do the graphics and get the campaign materials ready. Boy, was I in for a surprise when I got back. Someone senior (and someone I respected and liked) decided that we just couldn’t give companies any credit and changed the maths. Instead of grading them on the things we asked them to do, Oxfam changed the grades and decided to make one of the four things we asked them to do count for 70% of the grade. Why? Because almost all of them failed this part of the test. It didn’t matter that Oxfam believed that this one part wasn’t more important that others. What mattered most was to fail the companies. All of them. And they did. Nestle got 43% in the report card.

I learned a harsh lesson. I might have taught research methodology at university, but when it came to social maths you can’t beat a campaigner. Truth and fact was truly in the eye of the beholder – Oxfam.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. I refused to budge and refused to lead the report card campaign. It did happen. Just not with me leading it.

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