Makhi Vincent Rala instantly recalls his first day at UCT. It was 5 March 2002.
Having worked in security for G4S for many years, back when the company was still called Gray Security, Rala was assigned a Campus Protection Services (CPS) post on upper campus. After the death of a colleague in 2009, he settled in the Bremner building permanently.
Rala is, in many ways, the face of Bremner. People call out to him as they come and go, asking after him. He responds in kind, wishes them well and buzzes them in as necessary. Rala is clearly held in high regard.
“Most of them, they are like my sister and brother, 'cause every day we talk and we share problems,” he says of his Bremner colleagues.
Rala looks bashful at first, looking up through his eyelashes as he gives an account of his life. He speaks softly, but continues the delicate juggling act that is his day-to-day work as he does so. He pauses before answering a question, makes eye contact with an approaching figure and produces the required set of keys before the request is even voiced.
Interacting with people is the part of his work that Rala relishes most. He particularly enjoys seeing people from all over the world and from all race groups entering the building. Rala has made some memorable connections over the years.
He remembers the friendship of one student in particular. “She was from France. She would come and ask me my home language, like greeting words, and I would teach her. Some of the words she taught me I couldn't remember even now because she left a long time ago,” he says laughing.
Rala comes from Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. UCT is a very different environment from the one he grew up in, he says. His village is deep in the mountains. His family would only go into town once a month to do their shopping.
“So here I meet all people, every day, talking with them and that makes me happy.”
A maths whizz and a science boffin
It is maths and science that Rala really enjoys. He sparkles with enthusiasm at the thought. After completing his schooling in Cape Town, Rala went to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (then Cape Tech) to complete a diploma in mechanical engineering. He was unable to continue his studies, however, due to financial difficulties. This is the cause of much regret.
“I said no, let me rather try and do some work, then that's when I get into the security,” he explains.
Rala had always intended to return to his studies. “But things didn't go as I wish, so I end up staying here because I had to support the family. [My] parents passed on. I was the one who was taking care of the family.”
Even with the staff benefit of 75 percent off UCT fees, studies still feel out of reach: “You know with my commitment at the moment … I've got kids,” he laughs boisterously, “so the salary I have, it's enough, but not enough. If I decide to study now at the moment, it won't be enough for me to study and to look after the family.”
Rala hasn't given up the engineering dream, however.
“I think at the moment I am pushing for my little ones,” he says. “Particularly the girl is looking good on the results of maths and science. I am sure she is going to follow in my footsteps.”
A changed university
Things do not feel different for Rala since he was insourced.
“There isn't much different because I still do the same work I was doing and the same people. It's just the paperwork,” he says laughing heartily, “and there are more benefits, obvious, and job security as well.”
Rala has many interesting stories to tell. When the Rhodes Must Fall movement first occupied Bremner in 2015, Rala was alone in the hall.
“The first day when they arrived to occupy Bremner, I was the only one who was here inside. Then the students came. The whole place was full here and they were singing and I didn't know what to do,” he explains with a laugh.
“So the following week when I arrived and the whole place was occupied. My workspace was occupied and everyone was around. It was a bit difficult because I could not do my daily job as normal, but I was around. I was around every day. All the action: I was here.”
Rala has his hands full in times of protest.
“Like now, when there is a march,” he gestures outside, where some newly insourced staff are protesting certain points of their employment contract, “I have to speak to the authorities to find out if there is anybody available to attend to them.”
Similarly, when people demand to see the Vice-Chancellor, it is up to Rala to convince them to follow the procedure and to make an appointment.
“They seem not to understand when it comes from a person like me, a CPS officer.”
But, as Rala explains, he really knows what he is talking about.
Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo Michael Hammond.
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