“Can you hear me?” is how our conversation starts. The perks and annoyances of the internet. It had been raining for most of the day and although the lights were on, both our ends seemed like every office room had resigned to the gloom that comes with cloudy days.
Through the screen, I get to meet the only woman in the technical field department at ikeja. I can sense nervousness from both ends of the screens; me, meeting someone new for the first time and her, having to answer questions about herself, her educational background and womanhood. To be honest, it is nerve-wracking. We extend courteous greetings and make awkward jokes in between to ease the tension.
Soon enough, Khuthadzo and I settled into a groove. Still awkward, but a groove nonetheless. We decide to keep our cameras on for a semblance of familiarity. We jump into it. “I’ve always wanted to be an engineer from a young age, but, as you can imagine, as I’ve grown older I’ve had people interrogate my capabilities,” she starts. I remember as an apprentice, my first on-job training and as the only two women in the team, we weren’t assigned any roles because of exactly that – questioning our capabilities.” Just no consideration of the compromises you had to take even to be a part of the training, I say, alluding to the fact that it was provinces away from home.
But what does it take to be the first female technical field operator at ikeja? the first thing that comes to mind, as Khuthadzo talks about her childhood in Limpopo, is resolve. The dictionary describes it as “firm determination to do something” and that epitomises the 28-year-old woman across my screen. At first glance, she seems sweet, almost gentle. But gently, she is stern in her beliefs and the role she currently fills at ikeja. And I imagine that sweet smile disguised as some sort of false resignation for her male colleagues as they try to convince themselves that she’s not capable of climbing ladders and roofs to get the job done. And it is that calm demeanour that settles before she has to find ways to do her job without anyone feigning concern before asking about her comfort.
But like any teenager, Khuthadzo’s teenhood doesn’t come without distractions, as she calls them. After Matric, she recalls, there was no genuine focus in her studies although she knew what field she wanted to work in as an adult. From her time at Sedibeng to Denver, she’d been working towards finishing her N6 in Electrical Engineering.
Whilst in the process of doing so, as if the universe was aligning for the little girl who’d decided many moons ago about a career in engineering, she got a call in 2016 to do her apprenticeship in Johannesburg which would conclude in 2019. The conclusion of her apprenticeship, if you’re someone like me with scanty knowledge in the field, was the biggest day of Khuthadzo’s life because she took her trade test that year and officially became an artisan. To be an artisan means actively practising and when you’re unable to, you become dexterous, as did Khuthadzo. And that meant going back home and being resourceful. Ngarothe Trading was the answer. She spoke to her grandmother before going back home and told her about wanting to learn, or rather, be trained in the electrical field. And to that end, Khuthadzo’s grandmother was the catalyst for getting her taught and doing house wiring as a practice, under an older man in her community who had been in the field since she was a baby.
And I guess the only constant in our lives is change – emotionally, physically and mentally. That seemed to be the theme in Khuthadzo’s life because, after the move back home, she later went on to move from Pretoria to Lenasia and now Johannesburg. “My life, in general, is all about moving constantly,” she quips. “That’s the nature of the job,” she continues. “Because we’re contracted, the jobs start, stop and continue all the time.”
But the tides changed with ikeja. She jokes about how she’d gotten used to doing assignments for roles she’d be interested in and that changed with her interview with the company. “Honestly, that was the first time in my life I had to do a physical interview. And because the field is so technical, you don’t expect to sit in an interview and answer questions about yourself without rationalising the job and its requirements first.” When she was invited the second time and expected, she was the only woman amongst a group of men trawling for the same role. The nature of the industry, she reminds me. After joining the installation team, as if to remind her of how pronounced she’d have to be in actively climbing ladders to get the job done, she had to do so whilst the team wasn’t watching. Once the worry about safety subsided, Khuthadzo’s job became easier because the question was no longer about how capable she was, it then became about who was more experienced amongst the team. And there she was.
After all the courtesies, and what felt like grilling her, I notice she was more relaxed and in her element, and that’s not me trying to understate it. There’s a noticeable radiance about the way she tells me about her journey, how everything seemed to be working for the better and the happiness that comes with finally saying; “I am here, and I’ve always wanted to be.” I become envious of it, and not in the ways that most people would be, but envious of that forbearance in an industry that seeks to mislabel your fortitude, talent and grit.
And before we conclude and disconnect our lines, she makes it known that she’d love to have other women on her team. “It’s an obvious answer – of course, I’d love to have more women working alongside me.” And with that, we leave our ‘meeting’ and I am left with: Khuthadzo – the first female field technician at ikeja currently. Khu-tha-dzo.