Anthea Davids-Thomas

Executive Director – Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT)

profile_anthea_davids_thomasThrough the glass ceiling: in conversation with Anthea Davids-Thomas,
Executive Director of the Social Change Assistance Trust

“While at school, on one hand I followed the rules in order to fit in but on the other hand I was dying to fly”
Anthea Davids‐Thomas

Change. it’s a word that has taken up residence into Anthea Davids‐Thomas’s life and work. The reason that Anthea is comfortable with change isn’t because she’s indecisive. It’s because she allows herself to be moved by the dynamism of the moment and the people within it. She lets their stories take her where they want to, and usually its somewhere that teaches her something about herself, the other person and community around her. This Executive Director of the Social Change Assistance Trust (Scat), an independent grant-­‐making entity committed to the sustainability of rural organisations, has been in her new position since November 2010 after spending almost a decade as a fieldworker, regional coordinator and fieldwork manager.

When asked what is special about Scat, she says: “Scat’s activity in the 80s created a platform for discussions and activism around apartheid and has always stood for human rights throughout its history. With rural development came structure at Scat, we have supported 60 organisations consistently for 12 years. There have only been two white Directors in its lifetime, and all have been women except for Greg Erasmus, who acted as Director briefly in 2008.
After some introspection, Anthea realized she possessed qualities such as endurance and tenacity that would make her a good fit as a Director. More importantly, she felt the position could fine tune some other aspects of her professional identity. Anthea, who holds an Honours degree in Social Development from the University of the Western Cape is an excellent public speaker, she calmly takes the stage and people listen when she talks. There is no excess in her speech, all is communicated clearly and with sense behind the words. As Director, Anthea would become the voice of Scat’s rural partner organisations, something she does with grace and aptitude.

Anthea took up the position at a time when Scat, 27 years in the business and currently focusing on human rights, HIV/AIDS, gender equality and local economic development, was looking internally at its value, relevance and comparative advantage, particularly in an economically unstable climate. “I’m such a dreamer, in my mind I could see where Scat could be with me at the helm.”

“One of my first tasks as a Director was to develop a change strategy,” she recalls. “People were naturally nervous about change, but I told them not to worry, that we should explore the possibilities and not limit ourselves.” The strategy is titled ‘Re-­‐imagining Scat.’
It’s almost natural for Anthea to use words such as “dreamer” and “imagining” when she speaks. She has managed the artful marriage of being in the moment with a search for the deeper meaning of it. While Anthea shows her staff appreciation for all that they do, she is nevertheless gingerly nudging them to be the best they can be. “Scat is always exciting,” she says. “The staff are great; there are diverse groups and heated personalities. But at the end of every month we get together to catch up, swap advice and share our experiences. This is about really connecting so we are better able to deal with the dynamics in the workplace.” Years of being a fieldworker has taught Anthea the benefits of being innovative around dialoguing and ensuring everyone’s perspective is celebrated.

As though the wind of change had come right off of Table Mountain and through the Scat offices in Cape Town’s city centre, Anthea began her new position by not only developing a change strategy but tackling the Scat brand and changing its logo. On the programmatic side, work is no longer regionalised and fieldworkers are now sent to any of the three provinces Scat is active in. It is a fact that Anthea misses the field. She was reminded just how much when she drove many hours through the vast, rugged yet breathtakingly beautiful terrain of the Northern Cape to the small town of Komaggas. She recalls how meeting her partners and community members, living with few comforts and surrounded by natural beauty, felt more like therapy than work. The reception of people when visiting communities is best part of Anthea’s job. “I am theirs, I belong to them”.

Growing up in Atlantis in the Western Cape, Anthea was acutely aware of the stark inequalities that were the order of the day. But instead of being paralysed by the challenges, her family sought to be part of the solution. “My mother was a development worker and used to sell soup from our kitchen for 20 cents, if I remember correctly and a portion would go to the church,” she says. “My mother-­‐ in-­‐law ran a safe house for abused women and children. In some way they were all involved with development work.” Anthea recalls that the single most recurring action during her childhood was laughter. This is despite losing her father at a young age. Nevertheless the family pushed on and through the hurt, and whether it was the paper cuts at the factory mill she worked at when she was 18 years old or the cuts that go deeper than that, Anthea allowed herself to feel them, absorb the lessons and move on.

There are people who display leadership qualities from an early age; like those kids that shuffle other kids around into a formation for a new game, or the ones that discard age-­‐old rules and replace them with their own. It is in this group that Anthea belongs. Being top of the class and sports captain at school were born from anthems she heard at home. “My mom also told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, that the sky’s the limit. So I was an overachiever.” But breaking barriers had its price and Anthea found herself excluded from certain groups. “On one hand I was mediocre in order to conform but on the other hand I was dying to fly,” she says. Even Anthea’s contribution to a better society was early and transformational. “I was the first black students at Tableview High School,” she says. “So I changed the face of that school. I even used to pay my own school fees by packing bags at Pick n’ Pay.” It was while making sure she kept the frozen foods away from the toiletries that Anthea met her husband Lester, whom she describes as her rock. The two have been married for the last ten years and are parents to three children. “I’ve always done a lot of travelling for work,” Anthea says. “But now I only bring work home twice a week, and I only work for one hour. If it has to be more than that, then we talk about it.”

Anthea is making sure she passes the confidence baton onto her sons, raising them to be strong and independent members of society. “They have to grow up to mean something to this world,” she notes. “There’s no victim mentality here.” That sounds fair and firm, core elements of Anthea’s leadership style. With Scat a veteran leader in the rural sector, Anthea knew that the organisation being passed onto her was both steeped in history and in need of change, a fine line for any good Director to walk. “I have to be disciplined because we are the custodians of funds, so I don’t compromise on the serious issues,” Anthea says, who worked at the Catholic Welfare and

Development before moving to Scat. “But I have an open door policy because I need to know where Scat’s pulse is at and if people are unhappy about something.”

If the wind beneath one of Anthea’s wings is a great team of staff, then a supportive board is beneath the other. “There are very dedicated board members at Scat who welcomed me and continue to act as a sounding board,” she says. “I feel they give me room to make a mistake and new ideas are always encouraged.” She is now given unlimited authorisation to proceed with the organisation’s operations. This, to Anthea, signals great trust. One of the many things Anthea praises Scat for is its development of women in management positions. In turn, she places priority on succession planning to help women break the proverbial glass ceiling. Anthea is extremely proud of Scat’s progressive maternity and child care policy, which ensures that women working at Scat are able to continue to work while being the mothers they want to be. She is also proud of Scat’s encouragement and support to improve staff training and learnership.

With donor funds dwindling as a result of the global financial crisis, Scat has been forced to reduce the number of its beneficiaries. “It hasn’t been easy,” Anthea admits. “But it will be ok. It’s about finding new spaces, new people and new organisations. We’ve also had to form partnerships and make concessions. Sometime you just have to eat humble pie.” As a newcomer among a tight clique of female Directors in the civil society sector, Anthea is also strategic in her decisions and operations. “There are quick fixes that bring instant gratification but these can complicate matters,” she warns. “It’s better to do a little here and there. There are also matriarchs of the NGOs and they can open doors if they choose to. I’ve learned though, just to be honest with myself. I don’t have to try and impress people.”

When she isn’t engaging in Scat business, Anthea’s imagination does not get an opportunity to dull. She loves art and gardening and often keeps stocks of canvas and art materials at her home. “One year for my birthday Lester framed two of my art pieces as a gift,” she says. It is clear, however, that Anthea and self-­‐congratulation do not bode well. For all her achievements, she remains a humble girl from Atlantis. Still, when deeply reflecting on all her hard work since taking up that first part-­‐ time job at the tender age of 13, she can and does finally admit: “I’m very proud of myself”.