I started ‘working for money’ when I was six or seven years old.
Some of the best friends I made growing up, and still today, are Greek. Cypriot to be precise. (There is a distinction that only seems to matter if you are from Greece or Cyprus.) The many skilled immigrants that arrived in South Africa between the 1920s and the 1960s — mostly from the United Kingdom, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Israel — were filled with hope and a burning ambition to create a life of prosperity for themselves and their families. All my friends from an immigrant background, had parents that started their own businesses. Those folks worked hard and tirelessly to eke out a living for their families. There is little doubt, the immigrants laid the foundations from which many large enterprises in South Africa have evolved today.
But I digress.
One of my best friend’s parents were from Cyprus. His father had a manufacturing company that made pocketknives. We would go with him to the factory from time to time. One day, we decided to ask his dad for a job in the factory, to earn our own money. Although we were still only 6 or 7 years old, we were up to the task of doing ‘men’s work.’ His dad, a wise man that was always impeccably dressed, smiled and agreed, after warning us that it was hard, manual labour.
Early the next Saturday morning, my friend and his dad picked me up from my house, and we drove to the factory in the industrial area close to our suburb. The memory is as vivid today as if I was standing in that factory now. I can remember how the smell of hydraulic fluid choked the air. Machinery and their operators, where all busying themselves with making the various components of the pocketknives. The regular clanging of the machine that pressed out the blades, drowned out any spoken word. You would have to shout to each other to be heard.
His dad introduced us to the supervisor after briefing him on our role for the day. There were assembly workstations where parts were put together, and manufacturing workstations that had machines making parts. He showed us to our separate workstations. At my first station, he introduced me to the man that was manning the process. He explained how the parts were assembled. It involved clamping a metal loop to the top of the handle. It wasn’t long, and I had the hang of it, and was part of the assembly line.
Then we moved work stations.
This time, it was to the end of the manufacturing production line, where the completed pocketknives finally arrive. I was introduced to the man whose job it was to close the open pocketknives as the arrive, before they get wiped clean and put in a box, ready for shipment. The open pocketknife has a spring-loaded clasp that prevents the blade from snapping closed. To close the knife, you have to use two hands — one to hold the blade and the other to hold the handle while you fold the knife closed. At the station immediately before mine, the blades were given a liberal coating of oil to prevent them from rusting.
The combination of my small hands and sharp blades covered in oil, proved to be a lethal concoction. As my hands got covered in oil, I couldn’t hold onto the pocketknife, and it would slip or twist in my hand.
It started with one cut.
I was taken to the ‘sick bay.’ It was this big red metal box with a white cross on the doors, mounted on the wall. The supervisor cleaned up my hand, administered a plaster and sent me back to my station. Somewhat nervously, I started again and managed to close a few before my hands were slippery from the oil and a knife slipped and cut me again. This went on until I had plasters on nearly all my fingers. The cuts weren’t deep or bad, more like nicks. But, because of the oil, the plasters were not sticking and would slide down my finger, exposing the cut to the oil. The oil caused an inferno as it seeped into the cuts. I was eventually not reporting any new cuts, soldiering on while dripping blood everywhere.
After some time, I was startled by someone bellowing my name behind me. It was my friend’s father’s partner. He couldn’t believe what I was doing, that I was not giving up, in spite of obviously being defeated by the process. As he led me back to the office to go patch me up, I remember being proud of myself for persevering regardless of how tough the task was.
We never went back to work at the factory again. We went back to being kids, playing soccer in the park and having fun. I’m glad I tried out working at such a young age.
In that one day of working for money, I learned more than in the rest of my working career.
I learned that you have to be bold and believe in yourself, if you want others to believe in you. I learned that not all tasks will be easy. I learned even when you master a task, you must move on to something that challenges you. I learned, mastering a task is sometimes not within your capacity, and that’s ok. I learned if you fail at one task, it doesn’t mean you suck at everything. But most importantly, I learned having grit is not confined to immigrants, but is within us all.
Originally published at https://www.leapfirst.co.za on July 26, 2020.