It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in September 2020 when Nosipho Ntseke decided that scrubbing toilets, sweeping and mopping hallways, and cleaning colleagues’ dirty dishes was not a job she wanted to do until her retirement. She yearned for more.
By then, Ntseke, a member of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Properties and Services department’s campus cleaning team, had just transferred to the Department of Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). But she struggled to cope with the transition. Leaving behind her colleagues at the Child Guidance Clinic (CGC) on lower campus was no mean feat.
“That move was very difficult. I worked at CGC for a number of years, and we were like family. Moving on to a new department was not easy. But I was placed there to do a job and I still needed to do it well even though I was struggling,” she said.
Ntseke did a great job. Fast-forward more than two years and her extra tasks around the office have paved the way for her promotion to secretary and administration assistant – a role she has occupied since November 2022.
A worker bee
It was particularly tough to adjust to a new working environment during the early days of the pandemic. There were only a handful of essential worker colleagues in office – making it very difficult to build relationships. She often completed her cleaning tasks early and because this worker bee always needed to keep busy, she found other little tasks to do around the office.
“So, when I was done with things, I still wanted to keep myself busy. There’s no point just sitting around [or] going home early.”
“I took my cleaning very seriously. I don’t take shortcuts. So, when I was done with things, I still wanted to keep myself busy. There’s no point just sitting around [or] going home early. I needed to be there when someone needed me,” she said.
When Ntseke noticed a giant pile of mail that had not reached its recipients for months as a result of lockdown, she decided to do something about it. After she received permission from the department management, she waded through the pile to distribute months of undelivered post. And as they say, the rest is history. Thereafter, Ntseke spent her mornings cleaning up to ensure the offices were neat and tidy before she started her unofficial job – delivering mail, answering the phone and printing.
As she started doing more admin-related office tasks, Ntseke said her colleagues knew exactly how she felt about office cleaning after two full decades.
“I was really tired of cleaning. I wanted to do something different with my life at UCT. A few years before I started at the Department of Medicine, I completed a basic computer literacy course, so I knew my way around the computer. I enjoyed the admin tasks very much,” she said.
When a job opportunity became available in the department, Ntseke’s colleagues encouraged her to apply for the position. In March 2022 she completed her online application and four months later, she got word that she was shortlisted for an interview. The news took her by surprise and the lead-up to the interview was daunting – she had no idea what to expect. But she put her best foot forward. And in September that same year, Ntseke received a call from UCT’s Human Resources (HR) department informing her that her application was successful.
“I spread the news immediately and served my month’s noticed period,” she said.
“Oh, my goodness, that excitement is indescribable. I can’t explain it. After 22 years of being a cleaner, things were about to change. You know, when you’re a cleaner, people take advantage of you. Sometimes they don’t greet or respect you; they don’t even notice your potential. But that too was about to change.”
Today, Ntseke is settled into her new role. And her responsibilities vary: from assisting the HR officer and the operations manager with daily admin-related tasks, to sorting and delivering mail and payslips, and managing the access card process for new staff members. She has one philosophy – to leave no room for error in her work and to always do a bit more than what’s required.
“You see, it’s important to use your initiative in the workplace. People notice you; they notice your skills and it might not mean a new job immediately but it’s an investment for your future. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. But good things come in time and going the extra mile takes you places,” she said.
“After years of cleaning passages and bathrooms and kitchens, that phase of my life is over.”
Now, some upskilling is required, Ntseke added. She has already reviewed some short courses with Success Factors at UCT and is strongly considering a course in business administration. Who knows, she added, a UCT undergraduate degree might be in the pipeline one day.
“There are so many opportunities out there, we just need to look. After years of cleaning passages and bathrooms and kitchens, that phase of my life is over. I prayed for this and now I have it. I want to make the best of each new day,” Ntseke said.
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