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Men are not projects

I wanted this to be my first post, the keynote speech at an International Labour Organisation training course for young women. Happy reading!

A wise woman once said:

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

I wonder how many of you know who that quote is by? The indomitable Maya Angelou, a woman whose gigantic intellect, steely resolve, gentle spirit and beautiful voice has always resonated deeply with me.

My name is Jahni De Villiers. I’m 36. I’m a mom and step-mom, labour relations expert and die-hard activist. I’m a wife for the second time. I’m a daughter, sister and colleague. I’m a friend. I would like to share my story with you and I hope that you find something that resonates deeply in you.

My story starts with a little girl who started becoming aware of injustice in the world at the end of the Apartheid regime. Though I grew up in a household where politics were rarely discussed, justice was a regular topic at our dinner table. I remember having long conversations with my father about the way the world works, the unfairness of total authoritarianism, a woman’s place in the world. Incidentally I like to call my father the first feminist I ever knew. He raised all three his daughters to understand that we could be anything and do anything, which is quite out of the ordinary for an Afrikaans man born in the 1950’s. My absolute hatred for injustice, I believe, comes from my parents, who raised me to believe in Higher Power and that I was placed here and called to help.

I think there are some misconceptions about my culture and people: We simply don’t talk about things like politics, money and religion easily. I think that’s why concepts like privilege are hard to understand for many, as the vast majority are the children of railway workers and civil servants, and other working people.

As a school-going child, I quickly realised not all of us were raised the same way: There seemed to be a deep divide in terms of gender roles that I was deeply uncomfortable with, because it was so alien to me. What I did cotton on to was that girls all had the very same insecurities, worries and fears, and if you can address those, there is power there, waiting to be harnessed. The trick is that it took me standing up and speaking my mind, which often lead to me being very unpopular with the Establishment. That persists today, whether it’s teachers, bosses, government, whatever the particular context may be, and it’s an uncomfortable side effect of being uncomfortable with injustice. I want each and every one of you to grasp that concept: We need to be uncomfortable with injustice, otherwise it will just perpetuate.

When it came to choosing a career, I had worked hard at school to enable me to have choices. I must contextualise: I attended a government school in Port Elizabeth where my maths teacher was a union shop steward, and rarely ever at school. We relied on the clever kids in class to help with maths, and through an incredible amount of tears and extra classes, I scraped through math Higher Grade. I knew my marks would mean not being able to make it into any sort of scientific field, and I knew I liked people just enough to where I wanted to find an undergraduate degree course that would lend legitimacy to my activism. At that stage I was in trouble for wearing pants to school for a few days in high school to try and change the school uniform, which only allowed skirts for girls: If any of you have ever been in Port Elizabeth during winter, you will understand my rage at that rule. It’s sexist, outdated and idiotic, and I conveyed the same. I was a member of the school governing body as a learner representative from grade 10 to 12. I was a junior city councillor. These were mainly because it was clear that I would not be silenced, and people like to abdicate controversy. Please make that your second takeaway: Know that when you use your powerful voice, you will find that people hand you the keys. It’s trust in you and it places a lot of responsibility and pressure on you as a person. If you have that fire in your soul, you will carry that burden on behalf of many people.

The choice at the end was law, and due to a mixture of academic results and extra-curricular activities, I ended up studying at the Nelson Mandela University by virtue of a full bursary. This was in a time where people were already complaining about lack of opportunities for white students, so I have to say that if you work hard and make sacrifices, the opportunities are there. The truth is just that competition is stiff, you need to know and accept that and you need to grab opportunities when they arise.

I fell in love with labour law during the first lecture of my third year of my LLB degree. I am so incredibly fortunate to still work with my professor, who is now the chairperson of the National Minimum Wage Commission, where I am a commissioner. There was something about workplace politics and dynamics that spoke to me. During that year, my father was retrenched from his job at Telkom: This was quite a dilemma, as my mom had always stayed at home, and he was the sole breadwinner. He quickly realised that any new opportunities would probably be in Pretoria, not in Port Elizabeth, which would mean massive sacrifices for him and my mother, given that I was completing my LLB, my middle sister was in her second year of a teaching degree, and my youngest sister was in matric. Through intense grace and perseverance, my parents managed a long-distance marriage and two households for over a year. I know some people do it much longer, I honestly don’t know how. I ended up completing my degree, and I started working for a trade union at the end of 2005, at 22 years old.

Just so all of you know: I followed none of my own advice and ended up engaged at 19, at the end of my first year, to my high school boyfriend who was a lot older than me. I am thankful for my father who insisted I complete my degree, and I ended up married less than two weeks after writing my final exams for my LLB degree. Given how my story started, you get no prizes for guessing how those choices worked out for me. I learnt that just by existing you can be a threat to certain men, and I learned very swiftly to make myself small. I believe that this compounded the parts of my make-up that were already prone to being anxious, and it definitely lead to me being clinically depressed. In a pretty cruel twist of fate, I also had a complicated journey to motherhood (I’m mom to two little angels gone too soon, my 10 year-old-daughter and 8-year-old son who are my reason for being, and an 8-year-old stepdaughter and 6-year old stepson who let me live my big family dreams when we holiday together).

My career was difficult. I was an idealistic 22-year-old who believed she could do enough good to change the world (by the way, I am now an idealistic 36-year-old who still believes that). I became a union organiser overnight through sheer force of will and persistence, and it was hard, hard work. Convincing people almost three times your age that you know what you’re doing, isn’t easy.

Here I think we need an interlude to talk about union structures: My fellow fighters, you often have no idea of the trauma your union organisers live through. The politics within union structures, and in my case, working for a union with a religious outlook that centres around the subservience of women. As you can imagine, I was not popular, much like in school my saving grace was my work ethic and results. I forged on for twelve long years, learning and absorbing as much as I could and refusing to believe that I wasn’t going to be the change. Make this your third little piece of advice: Know when to leave!

About 7 years ago, when my son was a baby and my daughter 3 years old, I realised I needed to make a change. I was 29, trapped in a relationship that was making me sick. My career had stalled to the point of a lead ceiling. I was depressed, tired, anxious. Therapy and medication did nothing. One day, I got up, informed my extremely shocked family that I was getting divorced and I did just that. Look, I am not advocating for divorce, but it is important that women let this nonsense go that we can change men. We can’t. A man is not a project, if you need a project, plant a garden or write a book. We were not put on earth to feed anyone’s ego. We are not meant to feel less than and ugly and subhuman. I’m sharing these deeply personal things with you, so you know that everyone has a struggle and you are not alone. Honestly, single parenting was a relief from what I had lived up to that point. It was the hardest few years I wouldn’t change for anything. It forged a relationship with my kids that I am thankful for. It’s also important that you know that this means I need to factor in these aspects when I plan for my career.

I stayed at my previous employer for another 4 years before I had the courage to leave in 2017. In 2014 I met my now husband, who is without a doubt the best thing that has happened to my children and me. I am married to someone who advocates for me, but who encourages me to chase my dreams and realises that means sometimes staying home with the kids. At the end of 2015, through his encouragement, I enrolled in an LLM degree in labour law (part time). I think we both knew that the academic qualification was like a security blanket for me to try and rationalise that I would be able to find another job with a better qualification. We got married in 2016, and after that I knew this was it: Midway through 2017 an opportunity arose in the policy space at Agri SA. Let me clarify something: I had no idea what I was applying for, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was working, studying, getting both my kids who had been diagnosed with ADHD through therapy and medication. My ex was constantly harassing me about maintenance, looking after the kids, my career, my life, my new marriage. I felt like the only time I wasn’t fighting was when I was sleeping. Incidentally, I lived through Fees Must Fall from a union perspective, fielding phone calls from frightened members, making sure they were safe. My well was empty, my career was going nowhere. Despite that, this fire in me propelled me forward.

I got the job at Agri SA, and everything changed: For the first time in my life, I was able to grab at opportunities because I believed in myself. Point number 4: Have a village behind you and go for it. Say yes and figure out how to do it afterwards. Never, ever quit. Since July 2017, I have been to Tokyo for a two-week training course (my first ever overseas trip), I have completed my LLM, I attended the centenary International Labour Conference in Geneva as part of the violence and harassment committee. I was appointed as National Minimum Wage Commissioner. I serve on a handful of important task teams at Nedlac. I get chosen for things and I get to influence labour law in this country. I get to talk to all of you, which is a massive honour.

Have I arrived? Don’t be silly, I have a lifetime of things I still want to do. But the bottom line never changes, I have a fire in me that fills me with hatred at injustice. I am no longer afraid of being loud and brash and tattooed and controversial, and the nice thing about getting older is you definitely care less about such things. Another nice thing is you stop comparing yourself to other women so much, which can be debilitating. One thing I feel passionately about is when you do get to a point where people listen, it is your job to draw other women up to your level and to leave things a bit smoother for the women who follow in your footsteps. Connect with other women and find places to help. That’s how we change the world.

So what I would like to leave you with today, is to remember that you have fire in you. Remember that you are important and loved and perfect the way you are. Remember that you were placed where you are to make a difference: You can ignore that siren call all you want, you will not succeed, so step into your destiny. A man is not a project. Know when to leave, whether it’s a job or a relationship or whatever it is, you are not placed in this world to feed ego’s. You are made for greatness. Don’t you ever forget that.

My last gift to all of you is a quote from Michelle Obama, which is so fitting in our country today:

“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens”.

No more begging for a seat at the table. Be bold, be courageous, let’s build our own table and let’s be the change our country so desperately needs.

Thank you.

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