The Game Plan
Working for a living in South Africa is a strange experience. For a job with a reasonable income, typically you'll spend years studying hard at a tertiary institution, pay cash for extra qualifications and will have cut your teeth on a number of entry-level jobs.
Within five years you work your way up to a middle-management position and feel you've paid back a large portion of the dues you owe. As you walk through the corridors of your company's various departments perhaps you'll overhear more senior colleagues sharing their fears, you realise that a lot of people are genuinely scared of losing their jobs. On tight project deadlines, line managers encourage you with a knowing wink saying: "Don't complain dear. You're lucky to have a job in these harsh times."
So you put your shoulder back to the wheel, or sweat away in a Dilbert-like cubicle thinking: If I work hard, keep my ducks in a row, treat my colleagues with respect and offer my limited guidance to those I manage then I'll be okay.
But one day, A Special Meeting is called. The company's head (the one who sits behind that gaping desk behind those trendy glass walls) says that people higher up the company have unfortunately decided to restructure your business unit for purely "operational reasons".
It's never personal you see. It's always about: broader economic constraints, the harsh financial climate, the weakness of the rand, the strength of the rand (it's a weather phenomenon perhaps?) but always unfortunate.
Another meeting is called for those employees whose positions are directly affected in terms of the Labour Relations Act, Act 66 of 1995. As a responsible employer, the company needs to give its employees notice of an intention to restructure.
The Way Things Are
Things move quickly from this point forward. A Business Rationale for the proposed restructuring is circulated and states that: "Changing operational requirements have forced us to consolidate certain positions where an overlap in responsibilities exists."
In short, the workload is such that it cannot support three full time positions in your department. The proposed new-look structure advises that one of the positions in your section is made redundant.
You take a deep breath, go back to your open-plan office quietly and later discuss the changes with your colleagues. The changes will affect a number of departments, but the change in yours is personal. You remind yourself that you helped the company to find and employ your two colleagues. From scores of candidates, you selected them and have spent many hours sharing your skills in order to increase their proficiency and self-confidence.
You feel especially bad because you are the longest employed person in your section, you have more senior experience in your field of expertise, and you know your worth.
Your company head has advised that the next step will be to agree on the selection criteria used. Management's preferred criteria would be a competency fit. Other options would be: Employment Equity (EE), Last In First Out (Lifo) and First In First Out (Fifo).
One of the boss's plump underlings (whose position is safe) has explained that once criteria are agreed on and finalised, the selection process will begin with detailed job specs drawn up, positions advertised and applications requested. After a week of deliberation and nervous nights of insomnia, your position is advertised - you apply for your own job knowing that only two people can succeed.
One of your colleagues feels she is by far the weakest candidate in almost all terms of the selection criteria. However you know that the company flagrantly abuses her junior status and actually uses her significant skills to gain two competent jobs for the price of one.
1. Strike One
The first brick hits you on the head: Things go as badly as you expect.
You are interviewed and put your case forward as clearly as you can - you know you are a valuable asset. However in the next few days you receive your handshake. The boss tells you: "I would like to confirm our previous consultation meetings. During these we once again agreed that our business reasons for retrenchment are valid, the structure acceptable and the selection criteria has found the most suitable candidate for the position. Your application for the advertised position was unsuccessful."
2. Strike Two
The second brick hits you on the head: You are now unemployed.
You enter a severe cloud of depression and go home to explain the implications to your family. You understand you have 10 months to register for unemployment benefits (UIF) but decide to hunt for work immediately.
You are highly qualified, have at least five years of specialised hands-on experience and more than one university degree directly related to your work skills. After three months of job seeking you begin to notice something strange.
You are rapidly shortlisted for almost every job you apply for. Yet, at each interview, you are told categorically that unfortunately you are overqualified and besides, the new Equity Bill makes it extremely difficult for any employer to consider hiring you. Why you wonder?
3. Strike Three
And then the third brick hits you: It's just a 'people thing'.
* You come from a middle-class family
* You've worked hard for every skill you have acquired
* You believe in the worth of the (almost-as-good-as) New South Africa
* You really want to walk forward with hope.
* But? But unfortunately you are male and white.
It's as simple and as confusing as that.
Life's A Bitch And Then You Work For One
The above story is not an uncommon scenario in today's South Africa. My last employer is a well-known magazine, within a much larger media company, which champions the rights of South African men and women, champions their constitutional right to be treated fairly, with respect and dignity.
But when I was retrenched, my boss, (a chunky white woman) never even asked how my family, my partner and daughter, would survive without my income. I lost my application for our first home loan immediately, lost my car, and instantly lost all medical-aid benefits for my partner, my five-year-old daughter, and myself.
I have spent the period since my retrenchment euphemistically describing myself as a media consultant. I have lost count of the number of PAs and secretaries I've spoken to, who consistently tell me with quiet voices (so the boss won't hear) that every resumé received from a white male, no matter how qualified, must be thrown into the rubbish bin immediately.
And yes, I have stood in the UIF lines with the long queues of broken, utterly ashamed men waiting for a small bundle of cash to put a bit of food on the table. And I note with interest that my previous boss has not grown any less plump [so at least she is still putting food on her table].
Each week, I scan the career sections of local and national papers. I also hit the online job searches with furious optimism but I am gradually realising that job opportunities in the new South Africa are not free and far from fair. The only fair criteria I am aware of is the colour of my skin.
I don't think I am especially angry but I have met more than a few retrenched men who are on the edge of flipping, "going postal" to use an American turn of phrase. How long before someone totally snaps at this perceived injustice being perpetuated daily in the Human Resources departments of so many companies? How long before so-called job rage becomes more than a passing news article?
I find it telling that less than 18 months after my retrenchment, the deadline for the new SA equity bill rolled around. My previous employer has become highly skilled at retrenching qualified people, of all races and genders, for purely "operational reasons". However a significant portion of these retrenched employees just happen to be white and male. The loss of these human resources has, I'm sure, gone a long way to making the company's equity quotas more acceptable at the dinner parties where these issues are debated, attacked and defended.
Looking Back To Look Forward
On one of my forays online, I stumble across an old editorial (November 1999) titled: 'Kill the bill or kill jobs', from Focus, a publication issued by the Helen Suzman Foundation. I really don't care what you think of the Foundation's political roots - I don't even know what political feelings it honestly subscribes to.
But that editorial makes a point that hit home, a prophetic voice that spoke directly to people like me. Listen carefully if you please:
"And then you hear about the new Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Bill. If this becomes law you will not be able to refuse to let space or grant credit or refuse jobs to people on a long list of grounds - not just those of sex, disability or race. Many of the crimes you may be guilty of (eg tokenism) are difficult to define."
"You can be hauled before Orwellian-sounding equality courts where the onus of proof is on you not your accuser and you are presumed guilty until you prove your innocence. Moreover, the bill is framed so that only the 'disadvantaged' may take action. And the 'advantaged'? There will be no recourse for whites against anti-white racism, for example."
A Slice Of Humble Pie
I am curious to see what the future holds for all South African jobseekers - regardless of age, sex and skin colour. After many months of waiting I am still to receive a letter from a representative of my former employer who promised:
"I wish I could say it was good speaking to you earlier but besides hearing that you are alive, things are obviously not well with you which I'm very sorry to hear...
I will, however, prepare a letter for you early next week trying to explain in the best way possible, why you were retrenched."
Like a dog under the table I wait for this scrap. And just like the Chinese fortune-cookie often promises, with its mix of blessing and curse:
May you live in interesting times...