I am a Fellow in the leadership program of one of the world’s leading management consulting firms. MBA students at the world’s best business schools aspire to work where I work, and do the work that I do. On a daily basis I work on some of the toughest problems facing large businesses and governments, and have advised chief executives and managers many years my senior, both in age and experience. I earn an exceedingly good wage by South African standards.
One of the reasons my employer found me to be an attractive candidate, is that I am a graduate of Howard University, one of the United States’ premier historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Many of the most sought after employers in the US recruit from Howard, because they rightly see it as the ‘go-to’ for finding black talent. (My alma mater’s significance to me has more to do with it being the most vibrant center of Pan-African intellectualism and learning in the world in my opinion, but that’s another conversation.)
One of the reasons I got into Howard University, was because of my performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), one of the key standardized tests which US universities look at when evaluating candidates. I scored 710 out of 800 on the verbal component, which evaluates critical thinking and writing ability, a score which put me upwards of the 90thpercentile, in other words, I performed better than more than 90% of the hundreds of thousands of students who took it that year.
I dress neatly, speak well, have good posture, and would like to think I have a firm handshake.
At the risk of sounding pompous, I share these facts with you, not for self-aggrandizement, but to establish my credentials to respond to Jonathan Jansen’s open letter to a Jobless Graduate. I presumably, am the successful, accomplished, polished, impeccably well presented antithesis to the lazy, careless, poorly spoken and presented jobless graduate Prof Jansen takes to task.
Now I do not doubt, that young job seekers could raise their game in making themselves attractive to potential employers. All of the suggestions Jansen makes- taking on leadership and service roles to broaden one’s experience and improve your CV; gaining work experience (even if working for free); and presenting yourself well, both on your CV, in your dress, and in your verbal communication- are good ones, and any jobless graduate would be wise to consider implementing them.
What I do have a problem with, is the tone of the article, one which is rooted in an alarming and unhelpful tradition practiced by many successful blacks: blaming the marginalized for their marginalization.
You see, in all systems of structural inequality, there will be exceptional people who succeed despite their unlikely initial circumstances. In the most racist, elitist, sexist or otherwise biased and non-meritocratic systems, there will be those women and men who through sheer grit, talent and indomitable perseverance defy the odds to reach the very top. Individuals such as Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, and Condoleeza Rice in the US, or our very own Mamphela Ramphele, Jonathan Jansen, Sizwe Nxasana, and so many more. I admire these people, their achievements are to be respected and emulated by the rest of us. And such individuals are only the most prominent examples of the many more, less prominent but equally important trailblazers, who achieve advancement in all spheres of society, whose success was not probable or assured from the beginning, striving as they did in societies characterized by current and historical injustice and exclusion.
What I don’t admire, is when these accomplished people blame those who have not overcome the odds, for their lack of success.
They don’t speak good English, in part because they went to historically disadvantaged schools which didn’t enable and encourage them to master the language, in contrast to the excellent mission [and even township] schools from which many of our liberation heroes graduated.
They often don’t understand the subtleties of being and appearing business-like, because their parents weren’t generally at the peak of the professions, indirectly imparting knowledge of the professional world to them throughout their upbringing and around the dinner table.
They haven’t apprenticed and interned in successful businesses during high school and university vacations, as their parents can’t easily tap into high-powered personal and professional networks to get them into those coveted apprenticeships and internships.
Yes, if they were exceptional, they wouldn’t be jobless. But any discourse around their disadvantage must confront the system that requires them to be exceptional merely to clamber on to the ladder at all.
Barack Obama’s presidential election showed African-Americans that anything was possible, despite the structural injustices of that society. Barack Obama, however, was a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Universities, and the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. His predecessor, George W. Bush, managed to become Texas governor and US President with no record of accomplishment or distinction throughout his life. The lesson? Yes a black man can do anything in the US, despite its structurally inequalities. But he has to be miles better than a white man, who can count on bias and privilege to create opportunities for him. Both an extraordinary black man and an ordinary white man, have the world at their feet. We can’t all be extraordinary. Even the ordinary among us should have a chance to succeed.
What Jansen also fails to mention, is that very few people achieve success without a helping hand, and the ability to draw on reserves of social capital. I would like to hear the Jansen’s in our midst talk more about the helping hands they received. Often the impression given is that they did it all on their own.
I am only at the company where I am, because of the intervention of a dear friend who specifically encouraged me to apply there when I was recently retrenched, unfulfilled, and looking for a career change. The company was front of mind for her as a good fit for me, only because she was present in the elite academic and professional worlds where it is a brand name.
I only attended Howard University, the single most intellectually and developmentally transformational experience of my life, because my mother wrote the application. I was depressed after none of my college applications were successful- I was a good, but not great student, and unstrategically applied to only a couple of extremely difficult to get into schools- and she promptly immersed herself in the college application process. She noticed that Howard, a well regarded school which I had never heard of, had an application date I could still make, filled out the application- asking me only to tick the major I wanted- and sent it off. I proudly took my place in the Freshman class in the fall of 2000, and looking back, would not have liked to have gone anywhere else. As the song goes, “I’m so glad, I went to Howard U…”
I only unlocked my potential as a writer, enabling me to ace the SAT, because my 11th grade English teacher asked us to write a series of 10 essays on his and our favorite songs. Thinking about those songs by Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur and others, gave me the platform to bring all of myself into my academic writing for the first time. The exercise and my teacher’s infectious excitement about writing aroused a latent passion in me. His positive feedback about my work gave me the confidence and pride to keep at it.
Where would I be if I didn’t have a graduate of an elite global university as a caring friend, an engaged, professional mother with the time and background to master and navigate the college application process, and a creative and dedicated teacher determined to unlock my gift for writing.
Prof Jansen is as thoughtful a contributor on South Africa’s education challenges as anyone. I’m not picking on him, merely using his letter as an opportunity to shift the conversation on achievement. I would ask the Professor, and any other successful South African who shares the sentiment expressed in the letter, not to blame the marginalized for their marginalization.
Let’s focus on giving aspirants the help they need. Let’s strengthen and expand learnerships. Let’s put guidance counselors in every high school. Let’s strengthen career guidance services in universities and crucially, to the majority of youth who aren’t privileged to be in universities. Each one, teach one. Let those of us in civil society mentor and bring along aspirants in our personal circles and wider communities.
These are necessary, but obvious solutions. We also need to develop big, transformational movements to overcome these challenges. We’ve spent a decade lamenting our skills deficit. Surely by now, we could have built a national, social movement which says, each and every skilled person should have an apprentice? Every executive, every senior manager, every skilled engineer, expert, technician or artisan, should have a willing youngster alongside them, for a minimum of two hours a day, to watch, listen and learn. In selecting apprentices let’s draw in not just the talented exceptions who will make it anyway, but the willing triers for whom that one opportunity will make all the difference.
And equally importantly, let’s build consensus on how to resolve the structural challenges which exclude the majority of aspirants, and admit only the exceptions. Let us never forget, the exception proves the rule.

Mandlesizwe writes in his personal capacity, the views expressed are strictly his own.