achievement competition policy

Reflections on success: my journey

Part 2/3 of remarks made at UCT Young Women Professionals Dinner

I’ll say a little bit about myself and the path I have walked to so far. I was born and raised in Hammanskraal, just north of Pretoria. Most people experience Hammanskraal as a filling station off the N1 towards Polokwane. If you get off the N1, drive a few kilometres past the largely moth-balled industrial park, you will reach a small village called Leboneng.

In Leboneng, I learnt many lessons about success. Most of its residents were uprooted, violently, by the apartheid state from places such as Lady Selbourne close to the city of Pretoria.  Growing up, I could feel the despair in the air. But there was also a fantastic spirit of ambition and perseverance that was instilled by the dispossessed in their children.  Not in an oppressive Willie Loman way, but in hopeful and loving manner.

In those days, the most memorable and anticipated parties were graduation parties or those celebrating other markers of academic success. Then people used to march down the streets in academic regalia. I can recall two women who won scholarships for graduate study in the US. That made a huge impression on me as a young girl. There were lots of teachers and nurses around, working in the community. There were two MBAs that everyone was baffled about because here were two graduates who worked in industrial settings. My mother also went back to university in the eighties.

That atmosphere decoupled privilege and academic success in my mind.  Part of what keeps us back, as women, or as individuals with high potential from ordinary or under-privileged backgrounds, are the associations we make between success and superfluous variables like gender or wealth.  This can lead to people writing themselves off from paths that may be difficult but nonetheless available to them, given their abilities. I have seen this dynamic playing out with the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. I have come across prospective applicants who write themselves off because they assume that they do not have the right background, didn’t go to the right primary school or didn’t contribute to a certain kind of NGO.

The flip side of this is a growing tendency within our national discourse to celebrate rather small victories and to set low standards for ourselves. In the 90s, when I was in school, and this still happens to some extent today, every ‘black first’ was celebrated. Of course the first black South African nuclear physicist is something to talk about but not long ago I read about someone whose claim to fame was being the first black person to study a certain type of project management speciality abroad. In male-dominated environments, women can sometimes become complacent and congratulate themselves for just showing up and for being the only woman at the table.

We think our rags to success stories are more exceptional or impressive than they really are. I was shocked to discover that Margaret Thatcher grew up using an outside toilet and without hot running water in the house. I had the same feeling the first time I travelled overseas. It was to the Philippines and I had never encountered such visible and brutal poverty. Through experiences such as these, I’ve had to re-evaluate my background and to realise that I cannot be too delighted with myself for being an Oxford graduate or a high ranking professional. These are things we should learn to expect of ourselves and other talented individuals around us. In spite of his many amusing Bush-ims, George W nailed it when he talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

In my studies and career, I think I have followed an organic path, led by curiosity and opportunity. In my 20s I obtained graduate degrees and then began work at a mining house. My first job was quite an education. Based at head office, I visited the mines and came face to face with hardened men who seemed to glare at us, corporate women, when we took tours underground. I came to learn about the challenges of labour-sending areas as we used to call them, and also of the reality of loneliness and dislocation that miners still faced in their host communities. This was soon after the passage of the mining charter. Working on the company’s beneficiation initiatives, it became increasingly clear that there was a significant divergence between government’s aspirations and what industry considered commercially feasible and within its core competence. That is a very difficult to issue to deal with, in a country with difficult government-business relations. Even more difficult when one is just starting out and your superiors are also treading on uncertain terrain.

Throughout my career, especially in my twenties, I have not had much mentorship but that is an outcome of both demand and supply. I wasn’t offered much mentoring. Yet I also didn’t seek it out and it is not a relationship that comes naturally to me. Friendship across generations works better for me, though I have no doubt that there is a lot to gain from the structure that mentoring brings. It is only recently that I have worked with a coach. That relationship has been a source of strength and clarity for me.

Joining the Competition Commission, in my early thirties, was an unconventional move for someone coming from my background. Though I have traditional economics training at master’s level, I also hold an MBA and I was set on a path of management consulting, likely to be followed by entrepreneurial activity. But a few years ago I missed hard core economic analysis. In listening to that yearning, I stepped outside what had become a comfort zone. I moved from a global consultancy to join a government agency. I switched from working in Johannesburg, where I have spent most of time since I was 12, to working in Pretoria, a city with a surprisingly different culture.

Yet in taking that risk, I have been fortunate to do work that fills me a sense of purpose. I have also learnt a lot about how this economy functions, beyond what I would be exposed to when working towards profit. Competition policy is fact-based, detailed work that gets to the guts of a market. In interacting with other competition authorities globally, I have been able to gain a unique vantage point into how other markets work and also the global economy. There are also few other jobs where you are cross-examined by senior advocates on your economic analysis or are summoned before Parliament to explain your work. The media is also a constant presence.

It is an amazing experience but it has only been possible for me because I resisted that ‘Sandton black diamond corporate-climber box’ that the world had in mind for me. It is important, as you think about your future careers, to think of ways to gain experience that you would not ordinarily receive if you follow a familiar script.

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