The Trouble with Maids

There can be no relationship in the world that is trickier to navigate than that between a white South African and her black maid*. Without a doubt it is our comeuppance for apartheid, and if for one second we’d like to forget about those bad old days of segregated park benches, Precious, with her Pick n Pay overalls, is there to remind us that the past is not quite as far away as we’d like to pretend. After years alone in Sweden a large, non-self-cleaning apartment with an infant and a toddler and no family anywhere near while my husband clocked ten hour days at work, the thought of moving back to South Africa and having hired help was a joy the headiness of which I could barely fathom. Things like going to the supermarket without negotiating a huge, double pram through a blizzard and then dealing with two hot, furious children in snowsuits in the 25-degree celcius store – never mind being able to work uninterrupted and squeeze in the odd yoga class – sounded like luxuries beyond comprehension.

But, having been away from the country long enough to forget that there is a system in place and that things work a certain way I was completely unprepared for the reality of hiring someone who is, essentially, a serf with a bad attitude (wait – hear me out), and how the slave/madam relationship works down here. Enter Nosipho (yes, she of the samp-and-beans). Nosipho was amazing with my kids – amazing – as in, she would host tea parties on top of the jungle gym and build forts out of blankets in the garden, make fires in winter, fry vetkoek and, within a month (Leo that she was) she was besties with all the maids in the neighbourhood, and her and the girls had a rip-roaring social life. She was clever and ambitious and, despite unimaginable disadvantages, had done pretty well for herself.

But, Nosipho was pissed off. For good reason – her mother was a sangoma who was more interested in pursuing her career than caring for her young daughter, and as a result she was placed in compromising situations. Despite being a strict mother her eldest daughter succumbed to tik addiction and lived on the street, abandoning her baby son with Nosipho who was left to raise him. For this proud woman who, on a miniscule salary, had managed to buy her own house and furnish it very nicely, her daughter was a terrible embarrassment. But, strictly speaking, none of this was my problem. She had a good deal with me – short working hours; a generous wage (well – in South African terms); time off when she needed it and lots of extras, like a big grocery shop of treats for her and her family on a Friday. I was always buying stationary for a relative; taking somebody to the optometrist; fetching and carrying a cousin’s child who had missed the transport home from school. She needed a couch, she got it; her geyser blew, we had it fixed. Her brother died – we paid for the funeral. It was never-ending.

But, there was the small issue of my ancestors having destroyed the lives of her ancestors, and none of this made either of us feel any better. In fact, it made things worse. You know the psychology of charity? The recipients get resentful as hell, and this happened with us. She’d come into work in a filthy mood and throw her bag down on the chair. I’d tip-toe around her and try to stay out of her way (not easy when you work from home). Of course, as an employer, what I should have done was say, ‘listen, lady, whatever’s bugging you – leave it at home. You’re here to work; get on with it or get out.’ Instead, I’d make us a pot of tea and fetch a plate of Melissa’s rusks and invite her to sit down at the table and tell me what the problem was. Was it something I had done? Was she upset about something work-related? She’d dunk her rusks and glower at me while I shivered in fear and thanked her profusely for the great job she was doing, never mentioning the fact that she left work every day reeking of my Prada perfume and with three loo rolls and all the sugar siphoned in a jar in her leopard print bag.

See, while we sat in awkward silence, me obsequious and her, vengeful, invisible assegais flew over our heads; Verwoerd in his droning voice assured everyone that blacks would be ‘separate but equal’; my school fees were free while her mother had to find the money to pay. The weight of our shared history was too extreme be lifted by the elaborate lunches I would prepare for the four of us to sit down together and eat until I realized why she was always ‘cleaning the bathroom’ when the food was ready. She didn’t want to sit and eat with me, but she didn’t know how to tell me. It just wasn’t the way things were done down here.

Eventually when she let me down severely by not coming back from her Christmas holiday on the allotted day and ignored her phone and my thirteen messages which meant I couldn’t show up at my job I put on my big girl panties and told her she’d better be back by the next day or that was that. She didn’t show up the next day; instead she went to the CCMA and reported me for unfair dismissal. She didn’t have a case so nothing came of that, and I was happy not to have that bad energy in my house, but it was a big shock and a learning experience for me. I was devastated, and mourned the end of our relationship for a long time. I had made the fatal mistake of thinking, because we were in each other’s company all day and talked often and were involved with one another’s families, that we were friends. We were not friends. I was her boss and, because of my own issues, I managed our working relationship poorly. And I take full responsibility for that. But it’s not easy either, given the status quo.

This past Friday night we shrieked with laughter as my gay friends, Bruce and Nicolaas, told stories of their maid, Dorothy**, who is very religious and hates Nicolaas so much she won’t even say hello when she shows up for work. She also leaves them rude, demanding notes and conducts her faith healing business during work hours from their phone account. Another friend of mine comes home to find her bathroom smelling of bubble-bath and her bed, warm. Apparently when Xoliswa is done with the ironing she enjoys a hot soak and a small nap. And, honestly, she probably deserves it. A colleague’s maid, Mavis, comes into work in the morning, makes herself tea and six slices of toast and watches Judge Judy for an hour before she starts with the vacuuming.

And the reason why nobody complains and our relationships get confused is because we know very well what a good deal we are getting. We have people do all our dirty work all day and pay them barely enough to survive. And because everyone else does it we pretend it’s okay. We say things to each other like, ‘R4000 a month is a lot for them. They live on very little.’ Really? Do ‘they’ have any choice? Last time I checked groceries and school fees and petrol cost the same for everybody, irrespective of their race or job or socio-economic position (and this is not a white-people-being-bad-to-black-people thing, the wage for domestic help is the same, whatever racial group happens to be hiring).

Anyhow. I don’t hire anybody full-time anymore. You can’t have a heart and not get personally involved with the people who are virtually living in your home, and it’s just too hard and complicated. I don’t have the mettle to draw boundaries and be tough with individuals whose lives are insurmountably difficult while mine is one long exercise in privilege. I have a char once a week, and the rest of the time I do my own dirty work. And maybe I’m denying somebody deserving a job, but at least this way my sanity remains intact. Eish, it’s a helluva thing.

*I know this term is not politically correct, but I’m going to use it anyway because ‘domestic worker’ just doesn’t work and ‘housekeeper’ is pretentious.

** Since this article was written Dorothy fired Bruce and Nicolaas. If anyone needs faith healing, drop me a line and I’ll get you her number.

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121 thoughts on “The Trouble with Maids

  1. I feel sad after reading this article and some of the comments. I feel sad because it seems that somewhere deeply embedded in your words you are trying to advocate for all of us in south africa to treat each other equally…but in this particular piece of writing you lost the plot in your choice of humor. Your choice of words betrayed your obvious feelings of compassion towards the very real struggles of the south african domestic worker …unfortunately in this case you just sounded totally patronizing of a previous employee. If I was fired, for the reasons you gave, I would be incensed that I had been written about in this way, publicly, by someone who simultaneously claims to be lamenting the loss of our relationship. It seems just plain unethical to me.

  2. mmmm i enjoyed the honesty of this article. Yes it isnt easy to have a relationship with your maid and this isnt just a race thing. I am a 24year old black south african and have grown up with similar if not worse struggles with maids who have helped out in our home when i was a kid and mades who have helped me maintain my flat as an ‘adult’… What is really sad for me is that we always look at issues through race instead of dealing with them as individual situations that , yes are influenced by apartheid, but are an opportunity to be transparent, learn and grow.
    Instead of tiptowing around each other, be honest. Ask those difficult questions like ‘ why are you using my perfume’. Say things like ‘i am willing to listen to you but your problems are yours and i dont have to suffer for them through your foul mood at work’..Express your interest in the other person but if it doesnt work, IT DOESNT WORK.. we dont all have to be best friends.. if i think of the jobs iv had, i can definitely say there were those i got on with soooo well and those that for some reason our personalities clashed…
    anyway, im waffling on now but basically wana say that all realtionships are individual and should be built and maintained as such, regardless of race

    1. Thank you for this insightful, considered response, and being one of the few who actually understood the blog post. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s been quite illuminating how many white South Africans responded to this story. To be frank, I think the truth hurts and many would rather pretend this stuff doesn’t happen, even though it’s such a South African reality. It was all too close to the bone. Thanks, Sindiswa. If you’re running for president anytime soon you’ll get my vote.

        1. Dearest Candice, why would you want a blog shut down? Has ol disco pant touched a raw nerve with you? Maybe you have read some other stories she has written and don’t agree with them either, “day in the life of a South African maid”……………..is what springs to my mind. Now, I was brought up in a household where one spoke the truth and if you spoke the truth about something that was important, you were applauded. If you have an actual opinion about the article STATE IT. But to act like an infant and to just moan and whine “shut the blog down” why? For what reason? Now please reply as I’m waiting with baited breath to hear what you have to say.

  3. I want to start this by saying that I am not South African, and have no direct experience of this situation. However I did grow up in Canada, where there are very similar feelings of ‘indo-European’ guilt over relationships with the indigenous population.

    I have always struggled with the concept you expressed here, of carrying the culpability of previous generations. It has always seemed to me that this is a hiding to nothing, in that (in the majority of cases) one could go back further and further in time dragging up injuries done to either side. Also I have never thought it justified to hold later generations accountable for the ‘sins of the father’. How can any society progress when weighed down by a debt that it is impossible to repay, a punishment it is impossible to exact, because the perpetrators have long since passed away?

    It may well be that the situation is completely different in SA; please tell me if my view is out of joint with what you experience there. I am genuinely interested in being challenged on this and want to understand how holding people to account ad infinitum (and conversely feeling a burden of guilt ad infinitum) can make anyone happier or anything better.

    1. what an extraordinarily succinct comment acfbrenner ! .. personally I think that you have summed this up in the most remarkably sensitive and intelligent manner .. what you have written ought to be read out at schools country wide ! thank you .. I do hope that everyone reads this .. !!!!

    2. I don’t think you can compare your situation in Canada with the one that we experience here is SA. The most notable reason being that Apartheid was ended less than 20 years ago. The situation here is not one of “holding people to account ad infinitum” and “feeling a burden of guilt ad infinitum” but rather, the people involved have all been directly affected by the Apartheid system in their own lifetimes. I am a young South African, born only a few years before the Apartheid system ended. Yet my life has been directly influenced by the Apartheid system. My parents had opportunities that other South Africans did not and therefore I am in a position of privilege that is directly related to Apartheid injustices. Any South African who claims that their position in society today does not have a direct relationship to the Apartheid system is either ignorant or employing a Freudian sort of defense mechanism in which one lies to themselves in order to avoid the negative consequences that come with acknowledging difficult truths.

  4. You have hit the nail on the head! I might’ve written it myself. I had quite a few giggles and more blushes than I would care to admit to. As a “new generation” Afrikaner woman, I constantly have to defend my familiarity with my own fairy, who is only a few years younger than I am, to the “older generation”. I battle to ask her to stay late or to clean something that I think I could do myself. I am unable to even formulate the words “Fairy, please make me a cup of tea [while I sit on the couch and read my book]”. She and her 4-year old son live on the property and yes, we are paying for him to attend the same school as my kids and for him to take swimming lessons and and and. I have financed may funerals, gravestone unveilings, forefather ceremonies and home extensions. The loans accumulate but are always paid in the end. And yes, there is a whole load of white guilt involved. I agree with you that we often blur the lines between employee and employer. And it’s dangerous. Very. Can I now, after 10 years of hard-earned understanding and mutual respect (with not a few hiccups along the way) turn into a “madam” like my mother-in-law would want me to? I don’t think my humanity would allow for that. Is is possible to gradually create a more balanced madam-maid relationship without offending anyone’s sensibilities? I hope so, because in the end it’s about setting boundaries for both parties, as hard as it may be. I have a lot to think about, thanks!

  5. Susan. Very well done on writing the article. It is not perfect, but heck it is honest. I think enough people have expressed their opinions on the political correctness, the use of humour, class biases etc. What is really important to me is that we need to be having these conversations. We all need to come out of our little caves and confront each other. It is ok to disagree. It is ok to be ignorant and to NOT know. If only we continue to engage in dialogue, will we eventually find each other – somewhat.

    So I acknowledge your candidness, and the courage to express yourself on this platform honestly. I do suppose it was always going to count against you that you are a white woman saying these things. Let the fighting (not physical of course) continue. Ultimately…eventually…we will find each other. This is what we need..honest, brutal dialogue!!

    1. well said Lesedi .. you are so so correct in what you write !!! xxxxxx yes brutal dialogue , raised voices , differences of opinion .. all good particularly when you listen to what other people think and feel !! xxxxxxxxx

  6. Hi. I belong to an amazing group of women in CT from a variety of cultures and skin colours. We get together and hash this race thing out. Say the stuff no-one gets to say normally. It’s challenging and hair-raising and totally inspiring. We call it The Dialogue Thing. Your comment section of this post reminds me of our conversations.

    I wanted to let you know I posted this up on the FB page and the group now wants it to be our discussion point for the next meeting. So thanks for this. And if you ever want to drop in as a guest I could suggest it to the group.

    1. Hi there

      ja, as you can tell from the comments, this one sparked a lot of tongue-wagging and emotion from both sides of the coin. What scared me about some of the responses was the you’re-not-allowed-to-talk-about-these-thingsness when it’s something we all deal with all the time. Others, on the other hand, agreed completely. We have to be careful of myopia when dealing with issues like this one, and there’s a scary censorship issue which reminds one very much of the bad old days. Anyhow, yes, that sounds like a cool group. Will you inbox me? susanannehayden@hotmail.com.

  7. Hi, I haven’t read through all of the comments, so I might be repeating what’s already been said. I think this is an incredibly honest and insightful piece of writing. I feel EXACTLY the same way and think that there is a vast collection of white women in South Africa who can absolutely relate to what you are saying. I think you are very brave for saying how you feel and it needs to be said. Relationships between different cultures in our country will never change if we are not honest – not only with others, but mostly with ourselves. Many people are so scared of admitting the truth to themselves. I always say: just because you won’t admit or talk about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t so. These thoughts and feelings lie in our collective unconscious where it festers and grows. Only by speaking about it openly and setting it free, we can move away from it.

  8. I have only been able to afford help this last year and a half. I am 48. My conclusion is – I dont have a maid but a lovely male housekeeper- helps steals or inadvertenly takes things they need, they can compost almost anything even a concrete table , and skyf off if im not around – thats my truth

  9. Loved this piece! I came back to SA after 10 years in the UK and I made this same mistake. It’s like you were telling my own story. I was so hurt in the end. Well written!

  10. I’m not sure if my first comment attempt went through. I will try summarize it.

    This is a well written, creative but one sided story. To be fair, you couldn’t tell the maids side.

    One thing I know, maids are way too respectfull/ “fearful” to show attitude or disdain to their baas/madam. Unless what see as attitude is a mis-reading of being tired, fatigued and overwhelmed by life demands, her family demands, your demands like her having to leave her home at 4am so she can be at your place by 7:30.
    such that when she shows up at your door she is so drained to be excited to see you or have tea with you.

    I worked as an security electronics technician (cctv, alarms, gates, intercoms etc) servicing the affluent suburbs of PTA, groenkloof, Brooklyn, waterkloof etc;
    I came across all sorts of madams/baas. However, almost all always welcomed me in their homes, offered me coffee, I love coffee, in a true genuine afrikaaner humility. Never came across a hardened racist that we see in blogs, news24 comments etc; maybe they were pretentious I couldn’t tell.

    The harsh reality of maids is unfortunately not reflected in this blog. Not all reality bu generally, I also came across maids who were emotionally, verbally abused, harassed and exploited. Maids who experienced racism.

    I also came across maids who worked for an amazing baas. Served/serviced him for decades. Baas educated her maid’s kids*priceless investment*, maid stayed at the back flat so she travelled home on weekends to spend time with her broken family, torn apart by ripling effects of apartheid. The maids I came across, appreciated and were grateful to god for this baas. They spoke great of the baas, even when speaking behind madams back in a language madam didn’t understand.

    So?

    Oh yeah, our mothers don’t steal. They might take half used washing powder, thinking you buy for her anyway so you won’t mind if she took this one, telepathy kinda understanding.

    ;)

  11. I am of Indian descent and living abroad for 6 years now. We grew up with no “maid”. My mother had a rule that we should do our own chores and that another human was not there to do our dirty work.. Many of my friends less affluent than us talked about the “maid” in a very commonplace manner. I thought my mother’s rule was really harsh and she never listened to me when I said it meant giving some one a job. Then I grew up and thought my mother was a true godsend as the voice of my education. Two incidents about maids stand out in my mind. I was invited by my white work colleague to stay at her house. I was staying at a bnb but she figured it would be easier to avoid the traffic. I was working for a surgical equipment company and she was training me on the product profile. I will always remember the attitude of her “maid”. She treated me so starkly. Felt like a cold slap in the face. She was making it clear that because I was obviously not white, she was not going to treat me like a guest and I was a little bemused and amused. She was making assumptions about me that were all wrong. Before I left for abroad, I stayed with my Indian friend in Midrand. There was a “maid”. My friend could do the “madame” thing with absolute prowess. It made me cringe. I treated the “maid” like my equal because I had never had a “maid”. To this day when I visit my friend, the “maid” is there and I still treat her like an equal. Now I have seen a lot of stories about the “poor whites” recently and if vassals are always going to exist I think when S.A has a good sprinkling of maids of all the colors of the rainbow nation with a good sprinkling of white, things will be a little more even. it would most probably lead to the extinction of the “maid” which is long overdue.

  12. My wife and I now live in the USA and do all our own dirty work, but we were lucky enough to have a fantastic relationship with our ‘maid’ in Cape Town. She had a really tough life but came into work everyday with an amazingly positive attitude. She would sometimes tell us about her hardships and we often tried to help, but she never complained, was never negative and always had a smile. We’re still in contact with her today and on our last trip back home we met up with her and her husband and child. Just wanted to say that not all ‘maids’ have the same negative attitude and baggage. Not pretending that things are always easy and roses, but sometimes you can have a mostly good working relationship and even friendship with the right person.

  13. Sorry but loved the truths and humour in this wonderful article…and laughed so much my endorphin levels went up…much needed as the crime in Pretoria makes me go to bed with a knot in my stomach.

  14. LOL! It is so NOT about apartheid and race unless you want to make it that. You’re trying to spin some grand social anthropological drama about this but its so much more simple. There is a very distinct and different human being from another culture and socio economic class in your intimate space all day long….there’s going to be hurdles and conflict under the best of circumstances.

  15. I have a completely different take on the situation. My mom had a young girl (16) straight from the farm who couldnt speak english. She did learn eventually but the result of that was that at a very young age, I could speak zulu almost better than english, being with my second mom all day. Moo moo came to us as a referal from my grans maid and they were all part of our family. Let me tell you they were infinitely better off than many who lived in rural areas with no possible income stream, except maybe a bit of weed sold on the side. In my experience, the maids that we employed over the years, certainly uplifted their own kids with the money saved by them “living in” and very often, when we saw them, mostly around christmas time, they were better dressed than we were. (poor working class family that we were.) I dare to say, that domestic asitants working for white families, benefitted greatly for many years. I also dare to say that domesticasistants in rural areas (yes there are such things) get by with slave labour conditions. ERven wives left at homesteads were worse off than their urban cousins whom worked for a madam who looked after their children, gave them clothes, opld furniture, bicylces, medical attention when needed, text books….long list…and there is the problem….WE taught people to expect things for free. There was no value placed on the stuff given away….and we all no….anything for nothing has no value. Well to most mortals anyway. Africans, generally, treat their own way worse than our own seered consciences will acknowledge most times. I have seen it first hand. When I was retrenched from a very well know Welfare Society, the staff were given opportunity to start theirmown small busineses and they employed their own crews to get going. The standard wage dropped TEN times lower than it was before the change took place. And notyhing said….lol. Such is life in Africa. One rule for guilty “whiteys”….and another for “africans.’ I have heard MANY old africans say….uit wa better before. I speak the language….fluently.

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