/ 2 September 2020

Black bosses, please lead us well

(Graphic: John McCann)
(Graphic: John McCann)


Undermining, oppressive, diminishing and derogatory. Is that how you would describe your black boss?

The cold, windy and rainy mornings my father endured working for his white farmer employers in Barkly East in the Eastern Cape remain a vivid memory for me.

My once-a-month visit from Mthatha meant I needed to prepare my mind for his terrifying workplace. We only ate leftovers from his bosses. It was painful to watch him fix a bicycle for his boss’s son. He sent money every month, but other than that, we were not able to experience our father on a daily basis. The white bosses owned him.

Because I had seen how condensed our parents were, working for abelungu, I despised the idea of working for a white boss.

Nowadays, I feel worried when black employees are not compatible with their black bosses. A black boss is every black child’s hope to transform and transmute corporate spaces. To embrace blackness.

However, 26 years into democracy, we are seeing an enormous — and mounting — trend of black employees drowning in depression and other mental health issues because of the unpleasant treatment they suffer and endure under the supervision of their black bosses.

What our forefathers experienced as slaves of white men in South Africa should not be repeated between black employers and black employees. 

Compatible workplaces matter, especially within black-owned companies, because we owe it to the next generation of young black professionals to expose even the subtlest forms of discrimination.

Compatibility comes from similar interests, similar political and philosophical views, history, class and cultural background, but none of these should contribute to bullying in the workplace. When black employees look for safe spaces within black-owned companies, they shouldn’t be confronted with exploitation and maltreatment.

It hurts to hear of young, black professionals who loathe black-owned companies because of bullying and oppression under black bosses.

As young, black professionals, we enter our professions wanting to be taught in practice what we have spent years learning in theory. The goal is to be exposed to interesting matters and to be given the opportunity to contribute to these matters in a way that affirms our value, not only to institutions but also to our colleagues and ourselves.

This could be effortlessly achieved with experienced black bosses who are willing to share their knowledge and proficiencies. 

In my view, black bosses should play the vital role of change agents. They should create conducive environments for their black employees.

As a young, black girl enrolled at the University of the Western Cape for a degree, I had to find a job to help me survive. In my first year I was appointed as a part-time employee at a Subway restaurant in Somerset Mall.

My first boss was a white man. My initial preconception of a white boss had to escape me because I needed money.

The racial and ethnic differences between us meant that for a few weeks I was anxious about our compatibility. I truly wasn’t sure if our workplace compatibility could be developed.

I was studying politics, aware that divisions between genders, races and ethnicities often existed in the workplace, in part because society as a whole still bears the scars of past injustices. I was also acquainted with the fact that racial and ethnic discrimination in the workplace was a daily experience of especially black people in the Western Cape.

These thoughts increased my anxiety. I wished a black person owned the restaurant. But I needed money so I silenced my fears and fully embraced my first job as a waitress.

After two months, I realised I was working in a compatible workplace and I didn’t have to worry about being denied rights because of my birth place, ancestry, culture or accent.

My boss and I had managed to build a healthy employer-employee relationship. We had a strong connection even though I was working only on weekends and holidays. He saw me. He heard me. He acknowledged my efforts and in his company, I belonged.

Today, as someone who has gathered some experience in the workplace, if I had a choice between working for a black or white boss — I would reject both. I would choose to become a black owner who does better in creating healthy, conducive workplaces for my fellow black workers.

Why do I care about a compatible workplace?

Compatibility is what people or groups share and are like-minded about. When employees have strong relationships in the workplace, you’re more likely to see prosocial behaviour such as collaboration, employees are more likely to feel a stronger sense of loyalty to their company and each other, and perceive more psychological value in their work. 

Author and talent manager Josh Bersin says, “The longevity of an organisation is affected by employee engagement, which is a factor on the financial performance of the organisation.” Contented employees are good for your business. Black bosses need to comprehend this.

Africa’s workplace future will be shaped by black bosses who commit each day to think differently, break boundaries and redefine our expectations, recognising that the opportunities in South Africa and our continent are limited only by our own imagination and commitment. They are our leaders today and they must lead the change to compatible workplaces.

Siwaphiwe Myataza works as a media liaison at the City of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.