DURING a career that has spanned 46 years, Pat Fahrenfort has bent over a conveyor belt in a printing factory and stacked books until her fingers bled (she was 15 at the time); responded to job advertisements for "fair-skinned coloureds" and "well-spoken coloured females"; and was propositioned by a prisoner in a courtroom while working as a reporter.
She turned down the offer of a "position" in London that required, in addition to secretarial duties, having sex with the boss when he was in town, and completed a degree while working full-time.
Fahrenfort witnessed many of the shenanigans that went on behind the scenes in Parliament during the writing of South Africa’s new constitution in the mid-1990s; was enraged to discover she "wasn’t black enough" for a position she applied for with the Department of Trade and Industry (headed then by Trevor Manuel); and risked alienation when she reprimanded colleagues about their poor work ethic because they read their Bibles during working hours when she was a deputy director in the Department of Labour from 2000 to 2005.
(She writes of the department, "the collective intellect in the ministry was equivalent to that of a fern leaf".)
These are only a few of the working stints and experiences Fahrenfort recalls in her book, Spanner in the Works (Umuzi), which was written with the help of writer and poet Antjie Krog who, she concedes, she "stalked" to facilitate a meeting to talk about the project.
"I’ve always kept journals and when, in about 2002, it occurred to me to write a book, I began cobbling events together," she says. "The initial result, however, read like a shopping list and I realised I needed help. I admired Antjie’s writing, particularly the way she skilfully goes back and forth in time. And although several people suggested I enrol for a master’s in creative writing to get the book done, I decided, even though I didn’t know her, to ask her for help.
"But I find it pretentious to ask others to introduce me to people. So I began stalking Antjie by keeping a close watch on arts calendars and so on. My mother taught me there are two answers, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and she added, ‘Hulle kan nie vir jou moer nie. Just ask.’ The occasion came at an event at the Artscape — I can’t remember if I was invited or if I gate-crashed — where I finally met Antjie and told her what I wanted to do."
Krog asked the aspiring author to send her a synopsis of the proposed book. Fahrenfort responding by forwarding a brief outline of 18 of the jobs she’d been involved in. Intrigued by her rise from factory worker to a deputy director in the government and her sometimes furious, often funny but always frank take on working life, Krog agreed to help.
"Several struggle-type books have been written by South Africans in recent years and I didn’t want to produce another one. I wanted to write about my 46 years as a working woman: the frustrations, the fun and the effort. I realised when I left the Ministry of Labour that only 18 months of all those years had been truly happy. Those were the months during which I worked as part of the Constitutional Assembly during the process of creating the new constitution. But I also believed the other years were worth recalling."
Although Spanner In The Works tracks her career from 15-year-old factory worker; to cabaret artist; to switchboard operator at a shipping company; to untrained reporter for the Cape Herald; to secretary at the University of Cape Town; to faculty officer at the University of the Western Cape; and private secretary to Terror Lekota when he was chairman of the National Council of Provinces; to deputy director in the Department of Labour and several other roles in between, it’s in the chapters about her work with the Constitutional Assembly that Fahrenfort is most animated.
"That’s when I experience real job satisfaction. I’d got to vote for the first time. We were making history working on the constitution. My job was the kind that was advertised in big advertisements, and no longer in the smalls under headlines such as ‘well-spoken coloured’. We were doing cutting-edge stuff and it was rewarding because we were able to see the project to an end. But I didn’t want to write about the technical stuff involved others have done that. I wanted to write about what I saw behind closed doors: the arguments, practical jokes, the individual peculiarities of the people I worked with, affairs and skinder."
On the advice of her publisher’s lawyers, Fahrenfort changed the names of some of her former colleagues and avoided naming others entirely in the book. Most notable among the latter category is the last of her bosses (before she left formal employment in 2005) whom she reveals only in title as the Minister of Labour and as having been named "Mampara of the Week" at some point.
Others though, such as the former executive director of the Constitutional Assembly, Marion Sparg; the chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, Cyril Ramaphosa; and Lekota are fully identified and come through the book intact. A few, including Manuel and Z Pallo Jordan are less fortunate. And some, such as Ken Andrew, of the Democratic Alliance, "whose members were sticklers for grammar" are subjected to a spot of teasing from the author. (The two people captured "bonking" on the speaker’s chair in the chamber by the security camera are among those who remain anonymous in the book.)
"Someone asked me recently if I miss Parliament. I thought about it and decided yes, I do miss some things about it. For instance, I miss chatting to the drivers on my way to work from gym each morning. They were sources of wonderful gossip!"
Spanner In The Works is not, however, only a woman’s account of politics, gossip and tomfoolery in the office: it’s also a story of survival in the workplace: "Apartheid may have gone and new legislation may have been introduced, but I don’t think the workplace has evolved that much since my working days. It is still a patriarchal place where all people are not considered equal."
Her story, she insists, is not that different from those of many other working class people who have struggled to survive and who continue to struggle to get ahead in the workplace. Every day women come up against the kind of sexism Fahrenfort encountered (particularly while working at the Cape Herald) and every day they come up against prejudice and have to decide how to handle it.
"I’ve always spoken my mind. Because of my size, I was a target of bullies from a young age. But I learned quickly not be a pushover. And while, these days, you might not get away with the kind of cheek I dished out" (she once grabbed an office sex-pest’s genitals in front of his colleagues to give him a taste of his own medicine) "I hope my experiences will encourage others to stand up for themselves."