Jul 24

‘Being South African has always been a great source of pride for us’

South African Shirley Duma spent 25 years living in the United States before returning home. Below is her homecomer story.

I grew up in Dobsonville, Soweto with my parents and 3 sisters. My father worked as a Sunday Times journalist, and during the 1970’s, when South Africa was experiencing a lot of turmoil and unrest, he was detained twice.

He had travelled with a group of journalists to the United States with the World Press Institute in the mid-70’s and made some connections there. After his ordeal, he contacted them and they told him to bring his family across.

We arrived in New York in 1980 and stayed there for a few weeks before moving to Minnesota. It was a HUGE adjustment- the culture, weather and people – everything was so different.  We lived in St Paul, Minnesota for six years before moving to Oakland, California where I completed the rest of my education.

After graduating from high school, I did my BA in anthropology and sociology at an all women’s college. I worked for a while at the college & then decided to do my masters degree in industrial sociology.

I then moved from Oakland to Sacramento where I spent about 10 years working with the Public Health Institute .  That position was my kindergarten in terms of my career development. I picked up so many skills from there – everything from working with diverse stakeholders to travelling and site visits – it was a really rich experience.

My parents are highly optimistic people, they always said we were South Africans living in the US and we should take the best we can from it, explore all the opportunities it has to offer but our true home is South Africa.

Although we were uprooted when we left South Africa, they instilled such a strong sense of identity in us as South Africans. Being South African has always been a great source of pride for us.

We started coming back and visiting relatives in the early 90s. After apartheid ended, my parents decided to come back home and slowly so did the rest of my family. Every time I came back, I realised my parents were getting older.

I finally came back in 2005.  Upon my return, I worked on the start of the Gautrain project with Murray & Roberts. I absolutely loved it. It was such a nice landing pad because I was working with a consortium of different people from Canadians to Americans to French, it had a nice international feel to it and a great buzz. I stayed with Murray & Robberts for about 9 years working at about 5 companies within the group doing various things.

Upon leaving, I felt a bit tired. It was a huge change returning home and getting straight into a job with no breaks in between. I decided to take a 4 month break to focus on myself. I took a couple of courses at the University of Pretoria, got into exercise and did some retreats. We don’t do these sorts of things for ourselves enough. Sometimes you just need to purge and refresh.

After my break, I was ready to get stuck in again. I was hired by Barloworld Logistics. There is such a strong alignment between my own values and what the company stands for. What attracted me to Barloworld is its strong international footprint and the fact that people most are the most important part of the business.  It has a deep culture and is a proudly South African company.

The best things about being home are being with my family, the food and being able to be in a community where you truly belong, not just with family but even in the workplace. There is a good feeling here, there isn’t that coldness you get in America – I enjoy the relaxed attitudes people have.

I also love the feeling of just being home and not feeling like I need to think about where I will go for the rest of my life.

A big adjustment for me was learning to drive on the other side of the road. The biggest thing that frustrates me about South Africa is seeing the availability of resources, not just financial but intellectual capital that aren’t being used in the right way, meaning  lots of people suffer unnecessarily. Another thing I have found frustrating since returning home is the lack of efficiency – you can’t get basic things done.

Having said that, people here complain a lot over issues like load shedding and politics. I agree that there are problems but I don’t think they are any different to other countries’ problems .The world is under a lot of pressure right now.

My message to South Africans and Africans abroad is: listen to that little voice inside your head. Whether you are living in London, Canada or the US – you are African and Africa needs you.