When I left university, my first job was in the Human Resources Department of the local government and we were responsible for all “incidents and allegations” amongst the mainly African staff of all the hospitals across the region.
I soon realised that the key to working in local council offices was to do as little as possible for as much as possible and at the end of the day (4pm) stand poised in the doorway of our office until the Big Boss Man in his safari suit and knee-length socks had strode past and then we could all fall in behind, like a gaggle of goslings, bumping and jostling in the wake of Super Gander.
I remember the day when a dossier appeared on my desk for me to deal with. In it was the ridiculous tale of two hospital staff, working nights who decided to venture from their work stations and make merry in one of the operating theatres.
I got it.
The come-hither eyes behind the mask, the friskiness of the open-backed hospital gown, the snap of the rubber glove but unfortunately, a security guard doing the rounds discovered the couple and wrote a long, detailed description of what he had witnessed and what he had gathered as evidence.
I decided that as it “takes two to tango” and these two seemed to have tango-ed, fox-trotted and cha-cha-cha’d the night away, they were both to blame and so suggested that both receive a stiff fine and a final warning. Job done and the dossier began to wing its way up the long chain of male command.
Park that thought.
At the same time, each department chose a young lady to represent them in the district finals of a “Beauty Competition”. These young women then went on to eventually compete in the Miss South Africa pageant.
I still genuinely don’t get this but somehow, one Friday afternoon, I found myself being interviewed by Three Big Bosses, all in Afrikaans. I need to explain Afrikaans quickly- a bastardised version of Dutch, spoken only in one country so pretty useful. When I was travelling, I would speak to Dutch people who would occasionally lower themselves and reply but generally ignore me.
The whole building then gathered in the canteen with all the candidates lined up- maybe about 6 of us. We were obviously the only ones under the age of 40 so would have to do.
Each woman was thanked and given a bar of soap as a gesture and then told to sit down. I was given mine and was heading back to my seat when the organiser grabbed my arm and said, “No, not you.”
No one was more bemused than I to discover I had been chosen as the representative for the department and would go on to have a huge photo of myself, complete with gold frame, placed in the window of the local department store for my past classmates to jeer at.
I still maintain I won it for two reasons: I was bilingual in a language which no-one outside the country could speak and when asked, I knew who the President of the USA was- Ronald Reagan.
A sparkly crown was placed on my head and a sash about my shoulders. I said my thank yous and managed to squeeze in a sentence about World Peace before deciding to head off to the pub.
By this time, that little old dossier had wound its way around all the bosses for them all to comment on and then re-appeared on my desk. It was my job now, to issue the final judgement on the couple.
The judgement was that the woman be fired and the man kept in employment.
I returned to my line manager and pleaded the case but the decision had been made and I had to write the termination of employment letter for that African lady who was probably the sole bread-winner for her family.
A few days later, I discovered another decision had been made and this one was about me. Big Bosses felt I was too “left wing and radical” for a career in local government and that if I didn’t find other employment and leave of my own accord, they would fire me.
I don’t remember what I said but I do remember marching down the corridor to the office of the young woman who came second and slamming the tiara and sash down on her desk.
“Good luck” I said and walked out.
I always find that memory a bit unbelievable: that I was once bilingual, that I was effectively fired for standing up for the unjust firing of another woman and that once, I wore a crown.