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29 January 2009

On changes in South Africa

Hello again.  I’m heading away on holiday tomorrow, and I have already packed a hefty suitcase of reading material and several very large bottles of SPF 50 sun-cream.  I’ll be back in a couple of weeks’ time but, in the interim, here’s a guest blog entry from my South African colleague, Lynn Oelofsen. Lynn and I used to work together in PwC UK’s recruitment team and she has recently returned to Johannesburg,  where she is responsible for PwC South Africa’s corporate and social responsibility agenda, and their programme of gender initiatives

Before she left London, we were discussing how much South African society has changed in the last ten years -   and so I asked her to write me a short piece about her experiences as a “returnee”. What does it feel like to be a visitor in the land of your birth?

Oelofsen

“Almost ten years ago, I bought an aeroplane ticket, packed a backpack, bid farewell to my hometown of Benoni in South Africa and boarded a plane destined for London.

At the time, I had just turned 21 and had little life and career experience. Although I had worked since the age of 15, I had only worked in an office environment for two years. Back then, things were very different in South Africa to how I now find them. Apartheid started dissolving from 1990, schools were only integrated and made multi-racial at the start of 1992 and our first free and fair elections occurred in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became our first black president. The atmosphere of the country was chaotic. Some people were ecstatic, some people were petrified and some people just simply packed up and moved abroad.

My first South African office-based job was working for a freight company just outside Johannesburg. As the youngest member of staff, I was the only one who had ever gone to school or socialised with people outside my own race. It was evident that companies had a long way to go. In this particular company, the managers were all white males, the administrators were all white females, the warehouse staffs was all black males and the cleaners were all black females. Racially, we still had separate toilets and separate end of year events and functions. We addressed the CEO as “Mr Smith” and never by his first name and, fairly often, women would not be included in the male banter bonding sessions. This, however, was all “normal” to me and I knew no better.

Life in London was extremely different. Everyone was equal. After temping wherever I could to pay the bills, my first permanent UK based job was working in a recruitment agency in the centre of London.  My branch manager was female, my supervisor was female, and my colleagues were predominantly female. I realise that this is partly the nature of the industry, but it was almost odd for me to watch a woman take charge and successfully run a branch. I then moved into an HR role before joining PricewaterhouseCoopers UK in 2004. At PwC it was refreshing to see that a manager is a manager, regardless of gender. My female boss made for a great mentor and, even though I am no longer there, I’m still being mentored by her. There was a real sense that nothing is out of your reach – you are in charge of your own future and what the future will bring. If you want to be promoted, you will be – if you work hard and remain dedicated, you will certainly reap the rewards.

The only time in the UK that I felt aware of gender bias was at the time of my second promotion. Out of the five officers promoted to manager, four were female. This I thought was astonishing, until one of the newly promoted managers pointed out that at our level, regardless of our years of experience, the women were all aged 30+ and the man was 28. The other male manager had been promoted a year earlier, also at the age of 28. Why was it taking longer for women to be promoted? We could have challenged this question and taken it up with senior management, but we didn’t. We just accepted it – and perhaps this is where many of us go wrong.

After four years and two promotions in the London office, I made the decision to move back to South Africa, and I transferred to a role in PwC in Johannesburg, which I started a few weeks ago. It is a very different country compared to how it was when I left. After so many years abroad, when I unpacked my bags I felt like a foreigner, the same way I did when I left to go to England. I was unsure of what the working environment would be like, I didn’t (and still don’t) really know my way around, due to major infrastructure changes in preparation for the Football World Cup in 2010, and I can’t really work out the value of the Rand when I am out shopping: “is this expensive, is it cheap?”

A huge part of me had concerns about staying with PwC; I loved the UK firm and the people and wondered if it would be the same in South Africa. I’m glad to say I was wrong to worry. The people are just as talented and professional as in London. My role is an interesting one – as the Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, our focus is on helping our communities and on skills development. As the Women in PwC Project Manager, my role is to help retain and empower our key female talent. I’m pleased that times have changed since I first started working in SA – the Partner to whom I report is female, as are the managers in the department. The networking group for women has incredible support from both male and female senior staff. Everyone is committed to closing our gender gap, and, in South Africa, focusing on equal opportunities for all races as well.

I’ve only been back for two months but I am already feeling less like a foreigner and more like I am back at “home”. I miss my colleagues and friends in the UK - it made a great second home for so many years and gave me so much in the form of life, cultural and career experience. Hopefully, I will be passing that knowledge and experience on here.” 

We miss you in London too, Lynn (as do the staff in your local branch of Starbucks, no doubt).

Until next month, post holiday –
Cleo

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