The day Nontsikelelo Jaji, 38, climbed a ladder to fix the cable of a streetlight outside her father’s house in Lawaaikamp in George, he for the first time fully grasped what his daughter did for a living. “He kept saying ‘ek kan nie glo nie’ (I can’t believe).
"He came out of his house and watched everything I did and kept shaking his head…but in a good way. When he realised I was in charge of a bakkie load of men, he was speechless. When we were done, he said to me: ‘my kind, ek is trots’ (my child, I am proud). That was a good day.”
Nontsikelelo is a special worksman dealing with streetlight cables, which includes fixing cable faults, reinstalling stolen cables, replanting street poles that fell over, putting up temporary electricity boxes for events, and more - she is literally the cable girl.
She is also where many youngsters start as casuals, which means a bakkie filled with mostly young men. “When I start with new guys, I sit them down and say: ‘I know in our culture men think they don’t have to listen to women, but this is work. Here you must listen to me, because electricity is very dangerous and I know what I am doing.’ I also promise them that by the time their contract is finished they will have learned something. They won’t just dig and drag cables around. I will teach them the basics of electricity, how to be safe and what to do if they want to pursue this as a career.
“I may be the only woman among a team of men, but I do my part. I also dig holes in hard soil and pull heavy cables - but I also share my skills with them so there will be a next generation of good, safe electrical technicians out there some day.”
Nontsikelelo was a street cleaner and waitress at Fancourt banqueting before she landed an electrical assistant job at the George Municipality in 2007, and was appointed to her current position in 2015. “When the opportunity to apply for a vacant electrical position came along it was one of the men, electrician Thomas ‘Rasta’ Scheepers, who encouraged me to give it a try. He said if I didn’t try how would I know if it wasn’t for me – ‘you will like it’, he said. Rasta was right about all of it.
“Like any job, the work isn’t all great, all the time. It can be very hard when people are disrespectful or even hateful, but I have learnt to not let other people’s ill-informed opinions determine how I think of myself.”
She lives is Zone 1, Thembalethu, with her school teacher husband, Mava, and 16-year-old daughter, Sikelelo. “My late mother, Deborah, used to be especially concerned for my safety, but I assured her that safety always came first and she shouldn’t be afraid, because I was not.
“I want women to know they have it inside themselves to change their circumstances. Don’t underestimate yourself. Ask questions about things that interest you, even if you know nothing about it - I learnt from scratch, but I did it. There doesn’t have to be men’s work and women’s work, it is for everyone.”
Words and photographs by ATHANE SCHOLTZLast published 08 August 2018