It was a crisp autumn morning when Nashira Abrahams entered the suburb of Rondebosch, parked her car along Lovers Walk and strolled towards her new office on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) lower campus. She was clearly in UCT territory. Young people with backpacks walked the streets at a steady pace, while others congregated in small groups, chatting enthusiastically – presumably before their first class of the day.
As she walked toward her office to start her first day as UCT’s newly appointed ombud, Abrahams was ready to serve those students and the thousands of others who occupied the space, as well as the staff and other members of the university community. It was going to be a mighty undertaking, she knew. But she was armed with strength of character (and it has never let her down before), ounces of optimism and tons of excitement. After two very short months in office, Abrahams understands the enormity of the task that rests squarely on her shoulders. And she is committed to fulfilling her obligations with distinction.
“When I first received the job specification, I was super-excited to apply for the position. I felt as though the job spoke to me directly. Alternative dispute resolution has always been an area I’ve been particularly passionate about, and this job involves a lot of it,” she said.
“I must be honest, there was something in that job spec that was calling out to me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, after just two months, I get it. I feel a sense of belonging, because I’m back at UCT and because I get to do what I love, and it’s so much more than just dispute resolution. This job has so many other layers to it, and I’m growing by leaps and bounds.”
The office Abrahams has been tasked with leading is an independent, confidential, off-the-record and impartial resource, available to all members of the university community, including parents, contractors and people living and working around UCT campuses. The office has a strict mandate – to receive, understand and resolve experiences of perceived or actual unfairness or wrongdoing. But only once the individual has followed the correct university channels and processes in place to get their matters addressed at faculty and department level.
“… Our office cannot be the entry point for complaints or concerns, because it jeopardises our independence and impacts on the efficacy of our services, which is crucial to our work.”
Evaluating visitors’ complaints, making the necessary referrals, executing informal fact-finding processes and facilitating conversations between all parties involved is part of the job. As UCT’s ombud, Abrahams is tasked with performing a vital function within the university – to safeguard the campus community against unfairness, discrimination and poor service delivery.
“But we are not the office of first report. When a matter has not been comprehensively dealt with internally, we are obliged to refer it back to the relevant department or faculty to attend to it. Some visitors are displeased about this. But we cannot stress it enough: our office cannot be the entry point for complaints or concerns, because it jeopardises our independence and impacts on the efficacy of our services, which is crucial for our work,” Abrahams said.
Well-equipped for the role
Abrahams is well-equipped for the job. In 2007 she graduated with her honours in social anthropology from UCT, followed by her master’s in law – specialising in dispute resolution – in 2018, from UCT as well. At the time of her master’s graduation, Abrahams was employed at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). There she served as a commissioner, dealing with day-to-day cases; and headed the regional dispute management department, the collective bargaining and mediation department, and the job security unit. She cut her teeth in the higher education sector as the human capital director at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and has also served the Western Cape Provincial Government in the Office of the Premier and the Department of Education.
“In many ways, all my roles at the different organisations I’ve worked in the past prepared me for this role. They’ve set the very firm foundation I needed to get where I am – back at UCT, and I’m so proud to be back as a member of staff this time around,” she said.
Even though it’s been a short period since she’s taken office, Abrahams said familiarising herself with the campus community, both staff and students, has been a pleasant experience. And when it comes to the nitty gritty of the job, she said addressing systemic concerns raised prior to her appointment and working in partnership with the relevant university stakeholders to resolve those, while also dealing with historic challenges that have been around for a while, has provided a solid introduction to what the job entails and what the university community expects.
“There’s a general sense [from university stakeholders] of wanting to work together to make the improvements the university needs, and to think out of the box in order to resolve age-old disputes and concerns. That’s refreshing and reassuring, that we acknowledge that change needs to take place because it’s necessary and we can’t move ahead without it,” she added.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Settling into her new job in a new, unfamiliar environment has been stress-free, thanks to her team – associate ombud Rashieda Khan and administrative assistant Dr Birgit Taylor. Together, the trio is unstoppable, and with their work hard, play hard philosophy, Abrahams said, she has no doubt that they will take the office to a whole new level in no time.
“I feel that they are truly in my corner; and with their support and expertise, we can do great things together to enhance the general wellbeing of the university community.”
“I would never have been able to run the miles I have in such a short time without them. They’ve been wonderful, and have really helped me to settle in. In no time I found my feet, and it’s all thanks to them for their constant guidance and assistance. I feel that they are truly in my corner; and with their support and expertise, we can do great things together to enhance the general well-being of the university community,” she said.
As she develops in her role, Abrahams said, it’s of utmost importance that she ensures that Khan and Dr Taylor develop too – both in the office and beyond. This, she added, starts by developing action plans and plotting and planning where they find themselves professionally, and where they see themselves in the short, medium and long term.
Not just the ombud
After a long day at the office, what keeps Abrahams sane and level-headed? Without a doubt, she said, it’s got to be the love and support of her loving family. As a wife, mother, daughter and sister, the work is never-ending. She’s a cook, a baker, occasionally an ‘Uber driver’, and even a nurse at times. But she wouldn’t trade these roles for anything in the world.
This homebody also dedicates time in the day and on weekends to catch up on reading, or watching her favourite series while curled up on the couch with a blanket. But ultimately, for Abrahams, her family – three cats and three dogs – are the glue that holds everything together. They give her purpose in life, are her many voices of reason, and motivate her to keep going when things don’t go according to plan.
And if she’s not at the office, executing her ‘Uber driver’ duties or cooking up a storm, you’ll find her in one of her other happy places – in her garden admiring the birds in the trees, or in the park adjacent to her home, watching children play on a leisurely afternoon, while nibbling on a sweet treat.
“Selfcare is important, especially in this rat race we find ourselves in daily.”
“Selfcare is important, especially in this rat race we find ourselves in daily. We need to take a moment to step back and to reflect, in order to restart. My family helps me to do this, nature helps me to do this. Those are my happy places, where I can just be,” she said.
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