We Are The Ones We Need is an emotional and brutally honest account of the personal hell experienced by Sihle Bolani at one of the country’s major banks. Racism, sexism, toxic management and corporate indifference came together in this case to create the perfect storm of bullying and harassment.
Studies have shown that bullies deliberately target competent employees who are of a lower socio-economic status, have good relationships with their colleagues and prefer to resolve conflict through dialogue. Sihle ticks all the boxes. What they didn’t bargain for was her strength and determination to fight back. Many colleagues in her situation opted for mutually agreed separation or simply resigned without a job because they couldn’t take the abuse anymore. She even cites a sad case where an employee died in service due to stress-related illness.
It is disappointing yet hardly surprising that her black colleagues expressed their support privately but couldn’t do anything publicly because they feared losing their jobs. Black tax is real and if you’re from a disadvantaged background, the natural thing to do is to protect your livelihood.
The reactions by the black leadership in the organisation were shocking to say the least. These are the people that punt employee value propositions and say all the right things about authentic leadership but cannot walk their talk. However, given the same social context as the black employees, their desire to keep their seat at the table at all costs, means that genuine transformation and diversity in corporate spaces will be a long time coming. Meanwhile the toxicity continues to run rampant, destroying peoples’ lives and organizations.
This in many ways is the lived experience of black people in corporate spaces in South Africa. The denial of our talent and ability, our being rendered invisible when it comes to reward and recognition and access to opportunities. What was done to her was illegal and unconstitutional and the employer got away with it, as many continue to do by hiding behind internal policy and procedure. The natural reaction is to classify the writer as being one of the defiant ones, to label her as an ‘angry black woman’ and a ‘cheeky darkie’ in order to deny the wrongdoing, minimize the impact of the way she was treated and to justify the efforts of the corporate machinery to suppress her voice and to avoid doing the right thing.
This book is a must-read if you’re black and working in corporate SA for two reasons. If you’re young and gifted, best beware because the majority of white colleagues are now in laager mode because of Employment Equity and will take you out at any opportunity to keep the jobs for themselves and those close to them. You need to arm yourself with a network and effective support system to help you maintain your self-worth in a system that is deliberately used to destroy you. That said, not every white colleague is like that, however, if you can find an ally, make the most of it.
If you’re older, established and have a seat at the table, know the modus operandi and ensure that you do not tolerate toxicity and bullying in your own team. The case of Peter Moyo, former CEO of Old Mutual makes it clear that having a seat or even being head of the table is no protection. The monster will still come for you. Better prepare by uniting with other black colleagues, finding allies of other races and ensuring justice and equity in the workplace for all.
The truth is no one is coming to save us. We are the ones we need. It is up to us to be the difference and to make a difference in the way we and others like us are treated in the workplace.