“When I worked for Metro, my manager would always find me walking there,” smiles Nopasika Eunice Mbinda, as she points out of a fifth floor window in the Leo Marquard residential tower.
Mbinda's manager would ask why she was outside. The answer was candid, and revealed a firm career goal.
“I need air. I want to talk to people. I want to listen to people.”
Mbinda supervises cleaning staff at Leo Marquard, a job she was doing for Metro Cleaning Services from 2010 until recently. It was a long road for the former casual worker who worked half-days at UCT from 1999 to 2002 before becoming a permanent cleaner for Metro until her promotion to supervisor in 2010.
Now, as a permanent UCT employee and only 18 months away from graduating with a social work degree from UNISA, Mbinda knows what she wants her next career step to be. And it's not too far away from where she is now.
“I want to be based on the counselling side,” she says. “As I see it, there are a lot of people that need counselling in this work environment due to their personal problems. They don't have time to talk, or maybe they don't trust anyone.
“If I can be one of those that they trust, and they come to me and explain their problems, I can guide them. I'd be happy to do that,” she says.
Most people she works with don't have support in their homes, Mbinda says.
“At work, we can pick up that this person has a problem but doesn't have the support to just offload whatever is hurting her or him,” she adds. “But if there is a supervisor or social worker, at least it's easier. It's easy to offload to somebody that you don't know.”
The personal becomes the professional
Being four years into a social work degree, Mbinda feels more attuned to people's issues, even when they are reluctant to raise these issues of their own accord. She understands how intimidating it can be to confide in people that you know, or in people who you report to at work.
Mbinda embarked on her social work career because of her own experience. A cousin of hers is very ill and was confined to a hospice because of her mental disability. It fell on Mbinda to look after her children and remain a pillar of strength for her cousin. It was tough going, but she kept at it.
“It's easy to help my family [now],” she says. “Why not help other families? So I decided to do social work.”
She is studying through UNISA so that she can work and support her family at the same time. When she graduates next year, Mbinda will start studying counselling through UNISA, too.
Her ambition extends much further than her own well-being. Her current job is to ensure that everybody completes the tasks set for the week – from the daily scrubbing of showers and toilets to the regular polishing of floors.
Relating the Herculean load her nine cleaning staff have in tidying up after 420 students on 11 floors in the Leo Marquard residence, Mbinda mentions that the nine could do with two more colleagues.
They hope for one extra woman and one extra man, particularly to help with buffing the floors. The machine is strenuous to use, she says.
“You can't feel it when you are working, but at bedtime, all these pains come up. Tomorrow you can't get up; you feel tired. And then nobody is going to say, 'I feel tired,' because we need the showers to be cleaned.
“I'm waiting for management to come and assess, so that they can see that I really need two extra people,” she says. “In the meantime, we're continuing.”
Mbinda is aware that this is a fairly new task for UCT and there are some chinks in the system that are being ironed out. This is most apparent when finding solutions for absenteeism. UCT doesn't have a pool of staff to draw on that can cover when workers are unable to come to work.
“Yesterday, four of my workers were absent,” she says. “I only managed to pull [in] one woman from Tugwell. And then the women at Tugwell must pick up her work there to make sure it gets done. Even today, three of my staff are absent. I have only four staff members today. They are feeling rushed.”
Everybody needs someone they trust
Many of her colleagues need support in both their personal and professional lives.
“But they don't have the guts to tell the supervisor. The workers feel small to come to us because they don't trust that you're not going to gossip about them after they told you their story,” Mbinda says frankly.
“I love working with people,” she adds. “Maybe [management] will say that Mbinda has got a point and create an office for a counsellor for the workers. I would be very happy working there.”
If there was a professional on hand to handle these issues, it would be easier.
“There are things you can't handle alone, even as a supervisor,” she says.
When the need arises, Mbinda's mother is her confidante.
“The workers don't have that support,” she notes. “Some of them stay alone here. Their families are in the Eastern Cape. There's no one they can trust with their personal problems. At least if there's a counsellor to be the second ear, it will be easy for the workers.
“It's not that I'm going to solve your problem. I am going to help you deal with your problem. You are the one with the problem. But you need someone to help you with your journey.”
It helps that Mbinda has been around UCT for such a long time and knows the ropes at just about every residence around the place. The young lions of Leo Marquard have a special place in her heart, though.
“So if you're working and they mess up, you don't have that stress with them. When you clean, they approach you with a smile. 'Mama, be strong. It's going to be okay,' they say. So you feel like these are just kids. They are being kids. Let me just do my work. Just treat them as equals.”
Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Je'nine May.
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