Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

We Are the Ones We Need 
Sihle Bolani
Xarra Books

The subtitle to Sihle Bolani’s debut is The War on Black Professionals in Corporate South Africa. This made me think it would be a thoroughly researched book about the many issues that black professionals face in corporate SA.

In addition to Bolani’s personal story, I expected to read about the personal stories of countless other black professionals. I expected a reading experience similar to Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare or Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia, an intensely researched book that shows the links between theory and real-life experiences in order to highlight an issue that South Africans seem too ready to dismiss unless they have experienced it themselves.

This is not what was delivered. Instead of Bolani giving us a broad overview of the systemic and structural racism that exists in corporate SA, she chose to show us how it manifested itself in her professional and personal life. There is nothing wrong with this: it is just that the subtitle created unmet expectations.

Bolani has nevertheless written an important book that has started  a vital conversation. 

In We Are The Ones We Need, Bolani gives a highly detailed account of how she was allegedly constructively dismissed as a de facto PR manager at one of SA’s big five banks.

Constructive dismissal occurs when an employer makes the working conditions of an employee so intolerable that the employee is left with no other choice but to resign. It is an unlawful practice that is extremely difficult to prove.

‘Intolerable working conditions’

The difficulty lies in the term “intolerable working conditions”, because “intolerable” is an ambiguous word. It is mostly contextual and perspective-based. What one person interprets as an intolerable work environment can be seen as perfectly alright by someone else. Therefore proving the intolerability beyond reasonable doubt is hard.

Bolani writes that her relationship with her boss soured after her white line manager verbally abused her in front of her coworkers. She was thereafter inundated with administrative work without additional staff. This distracted her from the tasks that were integral to her performance in her job. When it became clear to her that her line manager’s boss and HR personnel would not help her improve her situation, Bolani took her complaints to black people in more senior positions. This too did not help.

“Things look like they are changing in corporate SA because more black people are in senior positions,” Bolani said at the launch of her book at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley in February. “They have positional power, not organisational power. So they don’t have the power to change the culture in the organisations.”

A member of the audience at the launch lamented her own experience of being verbally abused and discriminated against because she’s a black woman in the mining industry. These stories provide evidence that while companies claim diversity, inclusivity and transformation, issues of discrimination and abuse remain prevalent across the country. 

Bolani goes into great detail about conversations she had with her white superiors and e-mail exchanges with her black seniors about the way she was treated. One would think that such an overly detailed approach would be a bore, but Bolani has found a way to make the book an easy and quick read. Her book reads like a long WhatsApp text from a close friend. 

All sectors of our society are microcosms of society at large. This book makes an important contribution to the discourse of structural racism in SA in general. This was a point that was stressed by author and academic Sabata-mpho Mokae at the launch.

When Mokae introduced Bolani, he spoke about what Keorapetse Kgositsile called “the debt we must pay to the future”. In starting an important conversation, Bolani’s book does the difficult work of starting to pay a debt to future black South Africans so that they do not have to go through the same experiences.