Jesmane Boggenpoel is an experienced business executive and a former head of business engagement for Africa at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She has served on the boards of various South African and international organizations. She is a chartered accountant (South Africa) and holds a master’s degree from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. Jesmane was honored as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and is a Harvard Mason fellow. Speaking with Monarch, she shares her unique experience in the financial sector and how reckoning with her racial identity transformed her life!
Monarch Magazine: What led you to work in the private equity sector?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: Having spent a few years in corporate finance, I wanted to experience the full cycle of developing an investment thesis for a target company, acquiring an equity stake, strategically adding value for a few years, and later exiting at a hopefully enhanced value.
Monarch Magazine: I became aware of the tragedies occurring in South Africa’s Johannesburg during the mid-eighties. Have you seen progress in Johannesburg since then?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: I am thankful that the political transition from apartheid to freedom in 1994 was for the most part peaceful. I have seen progress in South Africa on various fronts (the creation of a Black middle class, the development of public infrastructure, and more foreign direct investments).
With the ending of apartheid, different race groups have had more opportunity to interact, and while this still requires work, there has been progress. Having said this, we are dealing with intractable challenges for lower-income people around education, health, and financial inclusion. The unemployment rate is high at around 28%, compounded by today’s global digitization trend. South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, with a consumption expenditure Gini coefficient of 0.63 in 2015.
Monarch Magazine: Would you agree that some of the issues in Johannesburg that you bring attention to seem to mirror issues occurring within marginalized communities in America?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: Yes, there is an overlap of issues. Regarding social issues, marginalized communities tend to have issues with unemployment, with spillover effects of crime and drugs. Marginalized communities have less access to quality healthcare and education. In South Africa, marginalized communities are geographically located farther away from city centers, making commutes longer.
Monarch Magazine: Looking inside yourself seems to be the approach you have taken to reconcile some of the issues you were faced with. Can you unpack some of the steps you took?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: Being historically mixed race, I was painfully aware of contradictions in my blood—I am the product of a slave master and slave, newcomer and native, oppressor and the oppressed, and even German and a Jew. I was painfully aware that some of my ancestors oppressed others of my ancestors.
From the history of colonialism, my family and I knew about the negative parts in our ancestry. I’ve now made a conscious choice to forgive and heal from the past, to recognize our innate human frailty. I also decided not to reject any of my ancestors, as this would be rejecting a part of who I am.
For individuals, communities, and nations we can embrace our past, including parts of history which are less comfortable. We can forgive those who have oppressed us. We can ban hate and bias while bringing people together.
I also talk about the power of reframing in dealing with traumatic events. Using my partial slave ancestry as an example, I visited the slave lodge in Cape Town, South Africa, last year. I felt so stuck in the unspeakable cruelty my enslaved ancestors faced—having their knees broken if they tried to escape, and the list goes on. It took me a while to become unstuck, and I had to craft a new script, turning the crucible into something positive. I looked to the ancient and magnificent kingdoms from which my slave ancestors arose. My Khoisan ancestors’ unique click language is felt to have been the first developed by humans. I saw my slave ancestors as resilient and survivors, instead of as victims. This same process of reframing can be applied to any group going through a difficult time.
Monarch Magazine: Americans tend to romanticize that racism is not as dominate in Europe, as it is in the United States. Is there some truth to this?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: I do feel in Europe there are issues of stigmatization and discrimination. Class tends to be more important in Europe, while in America, despite structural barriers, there is a belief that anyone can accomplish what they set out to.
On the other hand Europe does have a better social security system, so marginalized communities are better off. This can lead to less stigmatization.
Monarch Magazine: Due to your mixed ancestry, do you relate to the plight of African Americans?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: I relate to African Americans because I am a person of color and there is a similarity between the system of apartheid and Jim Crow laws.
In addition, because of my partial slave ancestry, I identify with the history of enslaved African Americans and the resultant challenges for generations after.
Monarch Magazine: What is your goal with releasing My Blood Divides and Unites?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: I grew up in a community that was marginalized during apartheid. Around the world, there are people who may have been marginalized due to certain policies who can relate to my experience and hopefully be inspired to also overcome.
I wanted to tell my story of being historically mixed race in South Africa on an international stage. Historically, mixed-race people arose from the mid 1600s by the racial mixing of European settlers, with the indigenous Khoisan and slaves brought in from Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, and other lands. This racial mixing and slave background were considered shameful and were not taught at our schools, so there was this mystery regarding my blood.
I also feel that the world is becoming more divided and fractured and I wanted a message that speaks to this. My story of reconciling the different strands of my blood can inspire individuals, groups, and nations to come together. That’s why I call my book My Blood Divides and Unites.
Monarch Magazine: In five hundred years, do you believe we will be united or divided by race?
Jesmane Boggenpoel: It’s so difficult to look in the crystal ball and to make a call. I feel that we have the power of choice. With our intentions, actions, and political votes we can choose to create a world where we live in unity and harmony or we can create a world that is divided, polarized, and insular.