I determined that I’d look for work. First thing I did was buy a newspaper early in the morning and jumped straight to the classified pages to look for jobs. I had dropped out of a Fitting and Turning apprenticeship program and had to find work. I had discovered that I just didn’t have the talent for mechanical engineering, generally.
Side note: Whenever I put my mind onto any task, I typically leave no room for regret or missed chances. I tend to end up with unimprovable outcomes — they’re either too good or too bad to improve. So there’s usually no point going back once I’ve made a pass.
The one ad that caught my attention went something like this:
“One of South Africa’s leading electronics companies wants YOU to join them! Are you YOUNG, ENERGETIC, AND ASPIRING TO EXPAND WITHIN THE MARKETING FIELD!?!? You don’t need any experience as we will be providing training. Are you between the ages of 18 – 35, completed your matric, dedicated and ambitious? If you are the suitable candidate and ready to move to higher dimensions in sales and marketing call Evelyn on 011….”
I always carried a public phone card with at least R20’s worth of airtime. I called and spoke with an official sounding lady. I didn’t get what she said before she said “…how may I assist you?”
“I’m calling regarding the position you advertised in today’s Sowetan…” She interrupted me: “Oh, we got a huge turnout for the limited positions but… Where are you based? Can you come through now?” There was a background buzz around her and she sounded hard pressed to attend to many important responsibilities. It felt like a fleeting opportunity I could grab if I moved quickly.
“I can squeeze you in if you could come for an interview right away. We’re at the Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein, first floor [gave detailed address]. Is three hours enough time for you to get here?”
I agreed and ran to a neighbour’s house and borrowed R50 to be returned when mom returns from work. I put on my Sunday clothes and ran to the Kwaggastroom train station, bought a return ticket and jumped into the next train to Joburg. I don’t remember how I located the building but it wasn’t difficult.
I had never had an office based job before so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was confident that it was within my ability. I was led into a boardroom that had a large table and only a couple of chairs, and there were three Chinese men and many black people who stood around the table, seeming to be the candidates I was up against.
“I’m gonna wipe the floors with them” I thought to myself. I felt a rush of confidence. My attention turned to the Chinese men and I was ready to impress them. They never made eye contact. I imagined that they might ask if my passport was ready and similar logistical questions. How random! Nobody had said anything about going to work in China. Anyway, overall, I felt I was about to nail this.
Two guys and a woman, all of them black, mumbled something to the Chinese men and then turned towards everyone in the room and the one guy started talking. He was pretty brief. He basically started pairing us up with our trainers. My trainer’s name was Bongani, who handed me a black sports bag full of boxes of gadgets and told me to follow him. I couldn’t see the Chinese men anymore. I hadn’t seen them leave so I imagined we were joining them somewhere.
It turned out Bongani was taking me to a live training session, on the streets of Braamfontein (or Jo’burg CBD, I couldn’t tell where we were, we’d made too many confusing turns and I wasn’t familiar with the city) I was pretty confused about this job by now. When/where would the interview happen? Was this part of an aptitude test? Do they have real offices…?
We both carried the black sports bags. Inside, there were blue boxes of battery operated shaving machines. We shouldered the bags by the long shoulder straps and Bongani had about three of the shaving machines in his hands. The packaging had a picture of a white man’s clean shaved face posing with the shaver. Its tagline was written in white — in Chinese.
Bongani would approach arbitrary black men at traffic lights and switch on the shaver and start reciting his marketing spiel about how cheap the shaver was, etc. It was just like what the train hawkers did, really, but we were dressed up and spoke English. Bongani was smooth — he was suave. The whole thing felt somewhat superior to train hustling. The newspaper had also said it was “Marketing” so I decided that it was above board. People were buying and he’d pocket all the money because we had no money bag or anything like that. Even women bought the shavers.
At one traffic light, while demonstrating a shaver to one man, it stopped working. The man walked away with a skeptical grin. I was worried that people had been buying this stuff and it seemed to break easily. I worried, as we approached more people, that they could be the same people who’d already bought a shaver and found that it stopped working and they might demand a refund, at best, or beat us up.
“Ok, I must now introduce you to a technique we call REHASHING” Bongani said. The worry in my eyes was probably evident so maybe he wanted to calm my nerves. Rehashing meant fiddling with the broken shaver until it works again, and then selling it. My conscience was so convicting me. I felt guilty about everything.
The next day, I reported for duty and I was told Bongani had given such an impressive review of my excellent performance, that they’d decided to promote me into a Senior Marketing Officer. I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to hustle the streets anymore and maybe the salary would be great. I still didn’t know how much I’d be paid in my previous role and now that I had a promotion, I had no idea how much I’d earn. But my conscience remained on my case. “What excellent performance? I hardly sold anything,” I thought to myself. There was a motivational speaker type person that morning, who encouraged people to be persistent and stuff. He made everyone shout stuff like “If I can see it, I CAN achieve it!!”
The guy who told me of my promotion came back with a sports bag full of contraptions and it turned out that being a Senior Marketing Officer meant I was filling Bongani’s position. Before I asked about the promotion salary package, etc, I realized that he suddenly looked afraid as he was packing my bag and then his. I saw the Chinese men roaming about, looking very angry and speaking in Chinese among themselves. One of the Chinese men work black uniform, security guard’s uniform, and pranced around the room and never making eye contact. I couldn’t ask anyone about Bongani’s whereabouts. Everyone in the boardroom was tensed up. I asked to use the loo. I felt sick, a “THIS IS IT,I’M NOT DOING THIS!” kind of sickness. I decided that I have to make a stealthy exit, I no longer wanted to find out what scared that guy, what happened to Bongani, why the security guard was looking like that, etc, I just wanted to disappear without traceability. Thankfully, the loo was outside and nobody escorted me.
I have never run like I did that day. I thought they’d probably chase me all the way to the train station and do stuff to me, like in the movies. The anger in the Chinese men’s faces had me thoroughly freaked out. I decided to run in the opposite direction instead of going to the train station, because that’s where they’d go looking for me if they so decided. The plan was to then find my way to the Westgate taxi rank and catch a ride home. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me, looking over my shoulder the whole time and I’d change direction whenever I saw someone who looked like anyone I may have seen back at that place — almost every third person I saw ended up looking the part. I got to Westgate and had to wait for the taxi to fill up before it left. That took forever but we eventually left.
I have no doubt that I gave this venture all I’ve got. I have never wondered whether there was any chance that I missed a good opportunity there — that I could have improved anything about it. I knew there and then that it was a false start and I closed that door and never looked back.
A few days later, a guy came knocking at home. One of the job applications I’d submitted more than a year earlier had been shelved and that vacancy had just resurfaced and I was the preferred candidate. Because I didn’t have a cellphone and our landline had been suspended, he had been sent to physically deliver that message and ask if I was still on the job market and when I could start.
I started the next day and worked that job for nearly two years, saving money. I enrolled part time for Computer Systems Engineering at VUT. My weekly routine was like this:
4 AM: Wake up and get ready for work.
6 AM: Start work.
3 PM: Knock off and get on a taxi to school.
6 PM (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays): Class starts
10 PM (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays): Class ends
12 AM (At the ond of the day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays): Taxi drops me off at home.
It was exhausting but I enjoyed class. On days when I didn’t have class (Wednesdays and Fridays), I had loads of homework and studying and then reading ahead in preparation for the next class. To my surprise, I failed my first exams with an invitation to write supplementary exams within two weeks. I had felt good about the exams and thought I’d done well. I decided not to rewrite because I felt that I’d given it my best shot and there was no improving it significantly in two weeks. I was disappointed but wouldn’t settle for a marginal pass. Also, I ran out of funds so I just had to rethink the whole game plan.
A few months later I met a man who had taught me some introductory computer courses a few years earlier and he advised me to take up programming as a course rather than as a subject within another course. He gave me names of the best institutions for that. He spoke as if he believed I was meant to pursue programming. I was re-energized. I resigned from work and went for it. I felt indebted to my manager, who had sent the guy who came to find me and got me started on this job. But it was time to go, so I told him I’d just been awarded a scholarship that I couldn’t turn down. He wished me well and told me if anything went wrong I should come back. I decided that I would never go back to work there. I pinned all my hopes on becoming a programmer and this was the time, I believed.
Although my savings had been depleted, my plan was to work hard and impress someone to sponsor me or loan me money. I used the R2 500 that I had in the bank to register for the one month pre-programming course and took the money that I’d claimed from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and bought a monthly train ticket. I used my train commute time for reading everyday. By the end of the pre-programming course, when a follow-up payment was due, all students needed to attend an interview where a decision would be made about whether they’d stay for the main course or go, based on their performance and how they were going to pay, etc. I sat on the stairs on an unused floor of the building and cried uncontrollably with a muffled voice. A strange prayer came forth without me even thinking about what I was saying. I’m not sure why I call it a prayer: “I am not leaving here. I’d rather sit outside here with the beggars and beg for this education! I am not leaving here!” I wanted nothing else.
When my turn came to sit for the interview, I walked past a very, very smart classmate who spoke something I’ll never forget. He knew I didn’t have money to stay on. He said, with conviction, “see you in the main course,dude” and shook my hand. I got a study loan from the school and got told if I ran out of transport/food money, the loan would be extended. I promptly asked that the loan be extended but that they give it to me as a monthly stipend as I was afraid I might be tempted to misuse it. By the time I wrote my final exam, I was in the school’s top 3 performers and had been headhunted for a programming job at one of the biggest banks in the country and they settled my study loan and so I entered the IT profession debt-free.
If you happen to be looking for work and you think you’re in a dead end street, take it from me, you’ll thank yourself if you never give up. Hang in there, keep believing, listen to your heart. Leave no stone unturned. Plant seeds of hard work everywhere, stop at nothing, be relentless. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. Sometimes you will win, sometimes you will learn, and sometimes the task at hand will be ridiculous and degrading. Give it your best shot anyway, and spare none of your energy until you are sure it’s time to move on. When you move on, you won’t look back because you will know that there’s nothing left there.