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Now here’s something I don’t miss about South Africa

Those readers who always keep a spare pair of undies handy, should they find it necessary to get their knickers in a knot, will no doubt find this post deliciously offensive.

I want to state at the outset that this is not an argument, or a justification, or an excuse. It is merely an observation, illustrated by a couple of anecdotes.

Recently, the agency I work for was briefed on a very urgent pitch for a government communication job. Essentially, the brief was to persuade members of the public to contribute to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and getting broad consensus on the Rudd government’s climate change initiatives. After some reservations about my ability to work on the campaign because I was not familiar with the previous work, and I had not been in Australia for very long, I was called into a meeting with several of my colleagues and two government representatives.

It occurred to me, after the meeting was over, that apart from the people from the ministry in Canberra, every single person in that room was an immigrant. Of the seven of us from the agency, there was me, a Malaysian and five Poms, a couple of whom had taken citizenship, but all of whom had kept their British accents.

I wondered whether this might impact on our ability to win the pitch, but as it turned out, it did not. By the end of the week (briefed on Tuesday, presented on Thursday, informed on Friday) we were awarded the business, and the first ads have already started appearing in the local press.

And that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Your ethnic background isn’t especially interesting. Not in business, not in Sydney at any rate. And not when it comes to getting government work. That’s quite extraordinary for someone like me, who has been assessing the demographic make up of any gathering for years now. It became a reflex action long ago.

Just before I left South Africa, I attended a meeting with a prospective client. He represented a major multinational and we wanted a foot in the door. There were five of us from the agency: two blacks, three whites. The black representatives were both very senior, and one of them was a BEE shareholder in the company; the white representatives were essentially wage slaves, there to take the brief because we were going to be doing a lot of the work. “I thought you said you were empowered?” the client said in Zulu. “Why are there so many whites here?”

That sort of thing doesn’t matter here. You have no idea how good that can feel.



  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.