White bosses don’t have a monopoly on economic unfairness, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
Living is bloody hard. Why on earth anyone would want to live forever I wouldn’t know. Probably sounds like a funky idea when you’re freaked out by the prospect of either dying, or being nonexistent, long forgotten by the world.
But actually, a life that is lived fully, with a mix of pain, joy, wrestling, meaning-seeking and other recognisably human characteristics, isn’t a life I would want to live forever.
Mercifully, death is inevitable. And that ticking, deathly clock incentivises us, if we bother to make the most of the temporary lives we have. I worry less about the fact of my future death than I do about whether I am living a meaningful life.
There are, of course, complex, interesting and contentious philosophical issues here about illness, death and the meaning of life. And that is the subject range of my current book project, Searching For Sello Duiker, a collection of essays that will expose my views on these topics, based on personal experience and philosophical argument.
My philosophical interest in this column, however, is smaller. Precisely because life is short, and death inevitable, it is worth periodically wrestling with whether you’re doing what you value deeply, and whether you’re engaging in projects and relationships that give meaning to your particular life.
All of this has been filling my head over the past few weeks, not only while crafting the overall structure of Searching for Sello Duiker, but also as I thought about my various careers, and more generally about young black professionals.
To cut to the chase: way too many of us are living corporate lives that do not reflect our deeply held views about ourselves. We allow ourselves to be undervalued, taken for granted, and for a gap to exist and grow between our actual value and value conferred on us by “the market”.
The consequence is finding yourself in your late twenties or thirties, apparent confidence oozing from your suited self, a degree or three in hand, but privately unhappy about not genuinely doing what you value deeply, or privately unhappy that “the market” – or society – isn’t recognising your true value.
Let’s look at our culpability here though as professionals, especially young black professionals. We’re not only corporate victims; we also contribute to this ridiculousness.
It all starts with the limits of formal education. I was the first person in my immediate family to finish school, let alone study at university. There are, on paper, many awesome sides to this: a chance to escape the poverty cycle; carrying yourself confidently in the world, armed with knowledge and skills; and decent prospects of living a fulfilling, maybe even a meaningful, life, one that is not hamstrung by structural obstacles.
But none of this means you have genuine confidence. Or that those rewards are guaranteed. Secretly, you may feel like an impostor in worlds your family didn’t come from or live within – the academy, corporate South Africa, the corporatised world of civil society organisations even, and other foreign spaces. It can be crippling. You feel grateful to be “in” there, unlike your peers and relatives left behind.
But actually you’re fragile, uncertain, and dare not tell anyone because you’re meant to be a superstar, a trailblazer, an exception to the family narrative.
Two terrible practical problems can result from this situation. First, you just won’t feel content with life. Now, I don’t think this is entirely a train smash. As I argue in Searching For Sello Duiker, it’s undesirable, and at any rate impractical to avoid anxieties in life and to yearn for a permanent smile on your face. That’s partly why I wish motivational speakers were shot at birth.
But, of course, there’s a difference between healthy anxiety that can propel you to be the best possible you, and crippling unease, flowing from a sense of being fake, being an impostor. And if you feel you don’t belong, it can lead to the unhealthy version of anxiety. That’s not great.
The second problem is more immediate. You will be screwed over by individuals, institutions and companies that prey on your self-deprecation and lack of confidence. I’ve been mockingly putting quotes around “the market” so far because that phrase obscures some simple facts. Markets do not exist. Human beings exist.
Mineworkers weren’t screwed over by markets. They were and are the victims of actions from fellow human beings. Generations actors weren’t screwed over by markets. They were and are the victims of a fellow human being. It is the actions and decisions of real people, not invisible markets, that result in economic injustices, and a failure to transform corporate South Africa. The language of markets allows capitalist pigs who lack a moral conscience to be let off the hook. We need to call a spade a spade, and not an implement available on the market.
Which brings me to the final point here. The only response to such corporate abuse, really, is to practise being a different professional, being a different you. It literally requires forming new habits, like making sure you negotiate deals that reflect your value-add.
And looking someone in the eye without blinking to tell them you’re cutting loose a poisonous personal or professional relationship. Why? Because life is short. It’s not worth wasting it on being partly responsible for your own commercial, creative or personal abuse. Instead, focus relentlessly on projects and relationships that you value deeply, and that confer meaning on your life.
Oh, and white business people don’t have a monopoly on economic injustices. Black bosses can mimic them rather well, so be vigilant, dear young black professional, wherever you are.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. He is currently working on his third book, Searching For Sello Duiker.