Experiencing discrimination in an immigration agency

For a couple of years, I had felt that what had been running smoothly had suddenly become a little sticky. It bothered me only a little. The sudden onset of trivial barriers, e.g. denial of approval for travel, was perplexing. But the rearrangement of jobs to suit a friend of the chief was irritating and, to a lesser extent, unsettling. The onset of the stickiness, I discovered, was when this official and I had a working relationship, with him way above me. It disappeared when we parted. The continual restructuring, as well as the movement of senior personnel which was a feature of this agency, brought us together more than once.

I therefore began to ask around if this fellow was a racist, knowing that it would get to him. As the Germans say, “Anger without power is folly.” Knowing too, that without any evidence, I would get nowhere in any formal attempt to force the issue, I kept my peace. Sometime later, after a planning meeting involving my new boss, with whom I had a good personal relationship, our big chief said to me, “I understand that you are calling me a racist. Would you please desist.”

I took a few seconds and then said, “You know what you have done, but I do not wish to bring this department into disrepute. I will also not retaliate or cause you harm. But I do know that, one day, you will be judged.” (I pointed a finger upwards at that point.) “I will leave it at that.” My words must have been like “a camel’s kick – soft but stunning”, as the Turkish people say. As my boss said later, “He did not respond to you, did he?” From that day onward, there were no more petty actions against me. But he had had his fun for far too long. He was the only racist I found in the public service.

Of course, there are some silly people anywhere, even in senior positions. Some play favourites, and they are to be found everywhere. With the departure of the agency head who had promised me a promotion, I came to realise that those who now ran the shop would always favour their own. The hierarchy reflected fiefdoms, all vying with one another, yet together they genuflected towards Rome and kept out the heathen from sacred seats.

I simply worked hard at the highest professional level, knowing that I could never be damaged. That turned out to be true in fact – as long as I did not aspire to promotion, my contribution was respected. I was invited to head the London office as Counsellor (Immigration), but I was already at that level and turned it down. Later, I was offered a comparable position in Pretoria, South Africa. I liked the challenge, but thought it wise to turn it down (as the bulk of applicants would be fleeing from a future coloured government). In the meantime, I had a ball, directing my abilities to the successful settlement of migrants, and making, I believe, a substantial contribution to policy review.

(What the above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ display cannot be construed as somehow unique. Petty personal prejudice, or favouring one’s tribal members, or showing a preference for a friend, or a WASP-ish attitude towards to the ‘Other’ are surely ubiquitous. Yet, until I sought to enter the Senior Executive Service, I was respected and treated well.

Having a new boss open a meeting by admitting that he had not attended Mass for a while, and then to have each of my peer group say the same, was disconcerting. My life became difficult, and I asked to be moved. A few years later, two different bosses successively had me moved out of my position, in favour of another. There was no point in objecting because the bosses were like autonomous tribal chiefs; due process did not apply then in this agency.

Finally, every year or so, half of my bailiwick was replaced with a new policy area. A number of those ranked below me when I was invited into the agency were promoted. I kept my head down, enjoyed the challenge of new policies, learnt all about migrant integration into the nation, and retired early.

I was clearly the only one at that time who had a clear grasp of all our policies. Hence the relatively recent reference by the agency to my “valuable books” in its thank-you letter to me when the Minister had forwarded my two books ‘The Karma of Culture’ and ‘Hidden Footprints of Unity’ to the agency! These deal with relevant migrant integration issues professionally.)