[OPINION] Ja baas: Some advice for white American expats
There’s a huge amount of American professionals who come here to be saviours. Cape Town is full of them. You can’t turn a corner without a chorus of Yankee-Doodles that follow. And while many of them are doing great work and have the best of intentions, there’s still a lack of understanding when it comes to the environment they work in, our country, our history, our politics. In a nutshell, if I won’t “ja baas” a white South African, you can be certain that I will never “ja baas” a white American. This is not Trump country. This is South Africa.
Now I realise this may sound like an age-old xenophobic rant, that well-known narrative of refugees going to countries and taking jobs of the people etc. And while it bears resonance, I am sure, the message is different. Refugees are people from underprivileged backgrounds who hail from countries where economics and politics hinder their survival, and who come here to make ends meet.
In my experience with white American employers and employees, this is not the case. Their opportunism is of a different kind. And whether they come here for enlightenment or just simply to learn, there are many factors they do not take into consideration. Like the blessing of Western Privilege, for example, and the mere fact that their passport alone gives them access to all sorts of opportunities. The realisation that while we know all about their culture and are knowledgeable on their country even though many of us don't have the means to go there is an important fact to remember. In a lot of conversations, many Americans are not aware of this sort of power imbalance that already exists just by proxy, without having to take all the other authoritarian workplace dynamics into consideration.
I worked for an American school for five years. And my time there as a teacher offered me a learning experience as well. The syllabus and methods of teaching were enlightening but I could never get away from the fact that this was a community that existed within ours, yet was so far removed. And this was in Pretoria and Johannesburg. The case in Cape Town is similar. While I no longer form part of the American teaching community, these silos of American expats are more popular here than in Gauteng. Restaurant waiters, barmen, policy writers for NGOs, workspace owners, digital strategists, finance specialists who I have encountered, all of them American. Living the American dream in a cloud of African euphoria without ever being subjected to the important racial discourse that they directly have an effect on - even if they do not realise it.
We know a lot of you are new here, and even when you’re not, we know you come from the land of Stars and Stripes and entitlement. It’s hard to pull the Star-Spangled Banner off your eyes, so here’s an education for you in five easy tips.
1. Be aware of the fact that you are taking someone else’s job
You’ve come to share our weather, so you must also share in the struggle for equal opportunities. We are not blind to the fact that the very seat you occupy in your often-managerial position should actually be filled by someone who is homegrown. A born and bred South African, educated and qualified on these shores, with the knowledge and experience to be able to deal with the important discourse that needs to occur in the workplace – outside of thematic conversations that only deal with employment objectives. This person should preferably be a woman of colour. She exists. Don’t forget that. Remind yourself constantly that you are the epitome of white privilege.
2. Stay humble
If you remember tip number one, this one becomes quite easy. Keep your head down, and stay in your lane. Don’t pretend to know everything. Your struggle is not really real. You’re trying to manage people with a past you know nothing about. Those very people are trying to manage your ego and with all the other management we’re doing in the workplace when it comes to the struggle for recognition and diversity, seriously, the last thing we want to navigate around is you. So keep your opinions to yourself, and stay in your lane. Listen and learn. The adversity you might face isn’t coming from this warm African air. It’s historical, it’s got a time and place and the result of all those things are manifesting now.
3. Choose your words wisely
We don’t live in a non-racial society. Truthfully, neither does your country. But you come here because you love the "rainbow-nationess". Let me spell this out for you: IT IS A LIE. IT DOES NOT EXIST. You, white American, are not my equal. You are not subject to the same unfair treatment and criticism that I and many of my kind are subjected to. Your ride is basically free and without baggage. Except for the cool camera and safari kit you brought with you on your way here. You are not burdened by the daily melee a person of colour has to face in the workplace. Watch your vocabulary, for your own sake. You’re going to say something really offensive and ignorant with the wrong crowd and trust me, you won’t enjoy the backlash. The US citizen is not immune to being called out on in this country. If you’re white, you’re white. And that’s where we stand.
4. South Africans are more skilled and equipped to work here than you are
And I don’t only mean in an educational sense, but let’s address that. We suffer through our education systems, we fight, we come from a place where opportunities of access to education were limited – in many respects still are. I ask that you go and read up on the ongoing #feesmustfall movement. And while I take nothing away from the fact that education in the US is expensive as well, the privilege of opportunity is still open to you. When we’re done checking all the boxes and have proved ourselves academically – the few of us who do, we go into a career space where we constantly have to struggle with a political and existential crisis – again, the few of us who actually get opportunities in the professional environment.
Every South African who is a person of colour and occupies a position in an organisation, or has, has to overcome a landslide of emotions that begs the question: Am I just a number? In many cases, we have to prove that we’re not a person-of-colour statistic. Many jobs offer first preference to people of colour who come from previously disadvantage backgrounds, none of the policies require those people to be you – a white American. And then, even when we are employed, we have to often face the managerial likes of you. Let me repeat: You are taking someone else’s job. But remember, that if it weren’t for you, positions of control are often left to white South Africans anyway. These are hot topics, they are not going anywhere, so be cognisant of the fact that many of these organisations probably employ you to safeguard themselves from the fact that they have employed yet another white South African manager. You’re a scapegoat. But again, you are not immune, we, the people are aware, so should you be.
5. The “ja baas” complex
Let me start by translating this for you. “Ja baas” is an Afrikaans term that means “yes boss”. It stems from an age-old ideology that people of colour are stupid and that they need to obey white people who are more equipped with skills and intelligence. It stems from a forced sense of “respect” because without it the threat of being disposable and dispensable becomes too real. Employment is based on the notion of giving someone else (you) full control. My brain is the same as your brain, and frankly, it is tired. We will not “ja baas” any longer. I will not take orders from you that play into the hands of the “ja baas” syndrome. If I refuse to resort to being a regressive person of colour who is at the whim of a white South African, I certainly refuse to resort to that very thing with a white American. Actually, how dare you have the naivety to throw your title around? It means a bit more than you think it does when you order me to recognise your authority. I am not your indentured labourer. I will not “ja baas” you. If you do not understand the complications, sensitivities and racial discrimination around this, go back to Trump country. He needs you more than we do and frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is employed by Code For Africa at the head office in Cape Town as programme manager for impactAFRICA - the continent's largest fund for digital-driven data storytelling. She is a regular commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.