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.

122 thoughts on “The Trouble with Maids

  1. Africa has a wonderful lived reality of “what is”. This is what we (all South Africans) have to tap into. We need to rise out of our guilt and blame of the past and live in the reality of the present. This is not to say that relative have’s shouldn’t be economically helpful to relative have not’s. Voluntary giving and receiving does however need to happen in a realm free of guilt, but with reverence, respect and responsibility, from both sides.

  2. Hahahah bloody fantastic! I’m so glad you are doing your own house work. Let’s be honest, most people would like to pretend they pay their staff R4000 a month. The thought of most madams having a cup of tea and a rusk with their domestic makes me giggle, most don’t care how their staff are doing and then act all shocked and horrified when something goes wrong…………oh you have to love the good ol white South African madams!
    Good on you Susan! Rah rah rah………..

  3. Well said my friend! I am guilty too, I love my Angelina, but I must admit we do respect each others culture, space etc! Maybe coz she is from Zim! Xx

  4. Love this. We had a Maid who was old and blind as a bat with huge thick glass’s. She would bounce around the house as if she was in a Pinball machine , sniffing and snorting like a prized bull. i stopped buying nice cloths as she would burn huge holes in shirts with the iron. Eventually i hid the iron as i was running low on shirts. I secretly hoped she would fall over dead so i wouldn’t have to fire her. How could i be so cruel to this bag of bones that looked like a cast member of the walking dead and fire her. Months stretched into years and even some of my pot plants died of old age before i could finally move to a different city and leave her behind

  5. I just about fell of my chair laughing at this story !
    Having recently returned home from a long period in the UK I can relate to each and every nuance that your refer to. I still have my Cathrine, my kids adore her and get away with murder, the ‘dirty work’ gets half done with very little enthusiasm and generally at half mast. We had 4 grandchildren arriving for the school holidays recently unannounced to which I responded by promptly filling a trolley of goodies at Pick n Pay ! ….. My dear husband still maintains that she is in fact the boss but both being working parents we simply couldn’t imagine our lives without her…..Excuse me as I’m off to buy new curtains for Cathrines house as her granddaughter struggles to sleep when the sun comes up . Touche ! :-)

    Susan I’ve only recently come across your blog . I pretty much live a parallel life to you so absolutely LOVE how you put these things to words.

  6. I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m trolling through your posts with a huge smile on my face. This story made me laugh out loud – my babe is 6 months old so I’ve just started this journey. So much of what you’ve said rings true with me right now! Thanks for a great blog – I’ll definitely be following from now on.

  7. totally resonate with this! i’m in the same boat – doing my own dirty work after a lifetime of getting someone else to do it, it’s tough, but it’s somehow liberating. and a whole lot less uncomfortable. albeit a whole lot less clean too!

  8. Oh, I had toe laugh! My domestic prayed us back from Australia, and we still have the same non-relationship, after seven years. We just get in each other’s way. I’m also going for the sanity thing now, learning to live with a little bit more dust, but at least not being so irratable any more.

  9. Learn the culture, be aware of the traditions, absorb the heritage.! Remember that things changed in 1994, some for the better, some for the worse but, no change was the norm! Socialism is desirable, concern for the fellow man, admirable. The worst facet is that in the UKA, Europe or USA is a job description, with disclaimers for additional hours, definition of relationships etc the norm. All you have to do is shift the line to the left, employ a labour service and let them deal with the insidious misunderstandings. Learn the language of the person, there’s only 11 of them… The deep understanding will be clarified; one issue is that it is one way at the moment. Because of the we demand, with an accent, is the norm it will take much time to dissolve and allow the reality to rise to the surface.
    The changes one feels on moving out of the Africa of ones past to a cosmopolitan city in Europe, are intimate to a SAFA. The disconnected manner, the selected friends and acquaintances, the demands of work, work, work for the tithe, and then the tax, energy costs et al.

    Then, one returns home and 16:1 has a buffering effect, the reality of costs is hidden initially, the harsh reality evolves with time! Skills and experience are desired, salaries not always commensurate with previous, the pot of spare cash is smaller at the end of the month.

    But, who needs a holiday overseas, use national geographic on a 4K TV, at R69000 to travel. Then get in a car and go to places where you have never been, associate on the West coast! try crayfish and a bottle of wine! warm friendship! hospitality… Go to an Afrikaans dorp and spend the night with n brandwyn met eish. It is rewarding, eye-opening and enlightening all at once. Compared with the previous life in the distant Europe. WOW! And yet we don’t do that simple thing.

    Why move now age, gender, race, are against me, I get the lowest BEE points. minor issue when working for oneself! Then comes the security, 10 break-ins in 4 years, the cost of damage more than the cost of goods stolen. Friends hijacked twice and the wife once! Emotive issues aside, the psyche is burnt. I dislike the disjoin I have committed to but, it’s treated as a challenge and each day becomes a blessed day, new and a rebirth.

    The maid is one facet of the new SA, and in reality, you should do a needs and desirability analysis, cold hard facts, what should you pay? What is a correct salary? Are you engaging in the scheme of staff development, adult education? To make up for the sins prior to 1994… Then the number of unemployeds will blossom. That is the reality.

    Enjoy each day and give thanks for the infusion of the SAFA, culture, heritage, traditions and make sure you develop them with ensuring the new generations are equally engaged.

  10. Another wonderful blog! I love home so much, yet I love living in the UK. My blood will always run green and gold though….

  11. I enjoyed the honesty and had a good laugh, great read, my family and I live in Melbourne and we have no maid, eish I miss that. In SA my onderbroek was ironed, my socks neatly packed away, today I wear mismatched socks, gekrimpled onderbroeks, my marraige is under stress because I dont do the housework, I miss the maid.

    1. You are funny, thank goodness nobody sees your gekrimpeld onderbroeks, ironing underpants, you were spoiled back in the days.

  12. I love how you write about South Africa and it’s dramas, I agree with your theory about maids in SA, very true and the same applies to employees in general, the entitlement that exists in this country is ridiculous?

  13. Your post has truth. Traveling made me realise we tend to have a guilted or manipulative relationship with our staff. It is often not a clean cut transaction. I.E. You work, I pay you for that work. I outline what I require and the amount I’m prepared to pay and you decide whether you’re willing, at the said price.

    Not always so simple in SA. The closeness that develops often makes way for manipulation.

    So I have developed my 1st day welcome speech…..at the start as I outline my 4 criteria.

    – You work – I pay, if I start doing your work, their is no need to pay you.
    You’re welcome to keep coming to my home and to continue being my friend, if we have built a relationship. But I do not pay my friends as I’m sure you (the staff member) don’t pay your friends either.

    – I respect you (otherwise I would not employ you and allow you in my home or near my children)
    You disrespect me, I loose my respect for you. This directly effects my faith in you. If I cannot put my faith in you, you no-longer can be trusted within my home and family. (Lying falls under here)

    – You can tell me anything, I can take honesty, being told off. Being asked or given advise. But after discussion, I as the boss will make the decision and you as the employee will get behind it.
    (I believe we need to teach people to talk with no fear of a repercussion, to be open. People need to be taught to think deeper, to have an opinion and realise you respect them enough to consider it.)

    – You steal, ANYTHING, I will catch you, call the police and finger print you. I WILL lay a charge.
    As someone who cares, I see this as assisting you in the hope you wake up and change your behavior, and in the hope you teach your children the next generation differently.

    I think it’s important to help those in need, but I also think it’s important too stop the abusive or manipulative (pick the one that applies to you) mindset that exists in SA. The only way to do this is to set clear boundaries and hold each other to account in a non-emotional framework.

    We need to stop playing out the apartheid sterotypes, stop being the benevolent white, and they (our domestic staff) need to stop playing the role as irresponsible child.

    This is the new SA and we voted to be equal. Treat the people in your home as an equal, but also teach them to treat you as an equal too.

    (For those that think that’s harsh, I’,m not – I care deeply for my country and it’s people. I adopted my maids son when his mother died of aids, who I helped nurse.

    I want to see a grown up country and I want the rainbow nation. We need to grow each other up, respect each other and assist where possible out of the abundance of our hearts. But we also need to hold each other to account for our business contracts and treat each other as we would on a bigger world stage, in the hope that one day we the rainbow nation will all be mature players on that that stage, leading to a more secure future for all)

  14. Fabulous to read your blog. Looks like we all haven fallen into the same trap! I have through the years had numerous domestics, no matter how much I did for them, they always let me down in some way or another. Looks like one of the famous let downs is not returning from Christmas holiday! I look forward to reading your future blogs…

  15. Excellent blog – thanks. I employ Gordon who is from Malawi. He has been with me for 9 years. Like all of us he has good days and bad days. When however the bad outweigh the good I will mention it to him. He does not get the mutters or “brom brom” in anger. We treat each other with respect – he lets me know when he is going to be late or when he can’t make it to work. I appreciate his honesty and reliability so am prepared to put up with the odd bad day. I trust him with my home, my animals and my life and he has earned that trust and respect.

  16. I had to sell my previous house and leopard crawl in the dead of month to another suburb to escape my maid Patty .. I had even considered emigrating .. I was held hostage to her bad moods and temper tantrums for 5 years and had watched her bottom grow so large that it deserved its own postal code [ whatever groceries I bought and cooked went straight down dear patricia’s gullet ] .. and yet I , like you , continued to do all and anything to appease her misanthropy .. loved your story above Suzie neighbor girl , thank you xx

    1. this comment is so ridiculously dramatic. your maid is not a ninja, with a sword to your neck,demanding that she stay employed with the ridiculous peanuts you probably call her salary.

  17. Oh my goodness – how I laughed when I read this! We were transferred earlier this year to the U.S and the one thing I really looked forward to was finally having a legit excuse to retrench my domestic of 7 years.

  18. Oh my goodness – how I laughed when I read this! We were transferred earlier this year to the U.S and the one thing I really looked forward to was finally having a legit excuse to retrench my domestic of 7 years. I say candidly that I could not have managed without her help when I was mother to a three year old and new born twins (and no parents or family close by). BUT… and I KNOW it’s my fault… I started to dread her coming in and telling me about yet another thing that her husband / son / sister / neighbour needed. I paid school fees, school uniforms, bought stationery, field trips, church trips, trips back to Zim to see an ailing relative, weekly groceries – it was never ending. When I told her we were going, and that she would be retrenched with a more than prescribed package, the demands / requests stepped into overdrive in the last two months before she left us. I was so drained I even let her go two weeks before we moved just to be rid of her – and honestly, I could really and truly have done with her help in those weeks – but I just could not face it one minute more. As we were saying goodbye to friends and family, I was still getting SMSes saying she had spent all her money and needed more. And now, having been here five months, she has somehow found me on WhatsApp, and guess what – she’s being sued for unpaid varsity fees and needs money. I am ashamed to say I have blocked her number. I cannot take the guilt and I feel terrible. But I am now cleaning a very large house on my own just fine and feel badly, most of all, that I don’t even slightly miss her. How awful is that. I hate feeling that.

  19. can relate to all of this…had two full time maid’s while I lived in SA and downgraded to part time for all of the reasons mentioned above….I did all the right things, nearly went broke and insane trying to please…..and still did a fair amount of cleaning. however, not being able to afford a cleaning service here in the States, I think I would go back to the part time situation- treat her with a healthy dose of both respect and professionalism…it’s the only way to go…….god, now I have to go and do the f-ing cleaning……thanks so much for these blogs- I start my day with such a chuckle and miss SA like crazy.

  20. Too funny – I also do my own work after once having a casual once-a-weeker lady who was partial to borrowing my clothes! However – we now live in a complex and I see how the nannies (un-politically correct I know) look after their charges and shudder.

  21. Wow…I have moved on….many of these comments prove that white “Medems” have not lost their patronising attitude to domestic staff since the New South Africa opened up. Why do they all say “My” maid as if they own these people? Why would you employ someone who is such a pain for all those years…are you that scared of ironing and dust bunnies? Many of these attitudes are cringe worthy. Never mind though its Ok long as you paid for her kids school fees and every year at Christmas she got an extra bag of mielie meal, some paraffin and a ration of the cheapest cuts of meat possible …and Oh yes all the hand me down clothes. Forgive me if I don’t get the humour in this article.

    1. In a country where the ANC has destroyed education to a point where our matric pass rate is 33%. If us white medems started ironing our own clothes, mowing our own lawn and pumping our own petrol. Who would provide jobs for all the domestic workers, gardeners and petrol attendants? We are not scared of dust bunnies, chameleons or petrol. We realise that regardless of the pain in the arse a maid can be and how much we want to fire her. We cant cause she had children / grand children / great grand children who need her to have a job.

      Next time you go to a restaurant. Tell the waitress to take a seat cause you’ll get your own meal. God forbid you have someone wait on you

      1. yeah yeah yeah heard it all before :- If i didnt employ them ( for a pittance) they would not have a job bla blah blah – what a lot of self righteous tosh to justify keeping a servile class … tell you what take the Rands you would pay for a maid. sit your maid down tell her she is no longer doing your housework, pay for a basic education course and send her out into the world with the opportunity to better herself … if you are so determined that your relationship with her is for her own good it should not be a problem right? Or take the money you would pay your maid and donate it to a charity that lifts women out of this poverty trap… anything but please don’t tell me she is only cleaning your toilet as you are a really a cuddly middle class philanthropist. Oh ja it might be a
        good idea to learn her surnmame before you sign her up for that further education course

    2. Thank you for saying this, isikhumbanyathi. To the author: I find this entire article horrifyingly condescending. Your broad sweep of all domestic workers into one category without any kind of deeper exploration of who they are as people is appaling – though you pat yourself on the back for doing more than most “madams” would in terms of trying to get to know them. Do you realise that you are making them an “other”? The tone of this post makes me seriously question whether you see the maids you write about as equally human as you and her friends are.

  22. oh my dear isikhumbanyathi ..we must shuffle before we pull the PC card as sometimes it is as patronizing as racism .. personally I talk of “my” dentist and ” my” chemist and “my” PA and have yet to receive receipt of ownership for any of them ? .. in “my” case “my maid” in question was whiter than I am and from Serbia so lets not immediately presume that all whitish “madams” are direct descendants of Mr Botha ! .. I must add that several of my “black madam” friends endlessly complain about ” their” maids and nannies .. endlessly I must add !! .. so lets move along from the presumption that this is a damn black / white issue .. this is a light hearted column written by hard working women / men of all ages and race who are fed up with being mugged ! .. lighten up dear and this is not a racist suggestion !

    1. Yeah, whatever JS,
      I dont’ think I said the workers were all Black? They were however all called by their first names despite their age I guess, ridiculed for wanting more and more and some bulleted when their irritation factor grew excessive. One Medem ‘downgraded” from 2 full time maids to a part timer – shame- and they all put up with their troublesome servants “because we don’t know what we would have done without her with two kids” etc … to anybody in the real world reading these posts nothing has changed since my mothers generation it seems when it comes to the Medems attitude. The only thing missing are the words house girl, garden boy and nanny…er sorry someone couldnt resist that one… its in there somewhere.but its OK maybe that medam is a black medem. Cheers, off to vacuum my floor myself.

      1. personally I believe that dust is underrated .. pack the vacuum cleaner away and listen to your favorite piece of music at full tilt ! .. if you want a whitish madam to help you give me a shout xx

  23. Bwahaha-You know what?You’re OK! Sala kahle! ( Rodriguez is on full blast as we speak – I took your advice.) Take care.

  24. The ‘culture’ of having a ‘maid’ (housekeeper hereafter as the word maid leaves a bit of distaste in my mouth) in SA will remain for the unforeseeable future. From the looks of things the majority have focused on the racial divide rather than the positives that may become through providing a reliable income. Seeing as SA has one of the highest unemployment rates and extreme poverty levels in the world one should be relatively grateful that this ‘culture’ exists. You see, SA is changing (slowly at that, but it is) and the newer generations are becoming more and more aware of the desperate need for ‘equality’ in this country. However, this generation is still quite young and has not necessarily ‘made it’ in this world and in general cannot afford to hire a regular housekeeper. I know that in the future, when I can afford it and have my own home, I will hire a housekeeper a couple times a week to help with the cleaning. By doing this I am providing one of the numerous impoverished families out there a chance. A chance to make enough money to live and send their kids to school and hopefully university. A chance to change their views on the umlungu’s and ultimately a chance to strive towards equality. Through my personal experience, I have grown up with a great housekeeper. We were introduced to her as Maria but once she got to know our family and was made to feel comfortable in our home and at her work she told us her name was Nomlawu. Nomlawu has been working with us for well over a decade and to my knowledge has never once stolen anything from us. Why? Well she hasn’t needed to. You see, the most important aspect here is trust (haven’t seen that word here yet..) and that trust was built from the very beginning (If she needed some sugar, coffee etc. she was made comfortable enough to simply ask for it). You see she could trust us with everything and as a result a strong and healthy working relationship was built. She now has her own flat in obz, her kids are either at school or at university now and her entire life has been changed as a result. Now, sadly this is not the norm in SA, but hopefully as the new generations get older I am sure we will see more of this. The way this blog post was written and the ideals portrayed and complaints about being ‘taken advantage of’ are a complete load of bullshit! One should look at the small things first. For instance, do you drink filter coffee whilst your ‘maid’ drinks Ricoffee (if she WANTS ricoffee thats a different story) or do you buy her polony instead of ham for lunch because its cheaper. The cause of these problems are deeply rooted and often people are not even aware of it. Have a look at how you treat your ‘maids’ before writing posts like this. You may inadvertently be racist to them without even realising it!

    1. Actually, Koliwe grils when she come to us because my husband makes her his strong, Danish filter coffee with cream (as he likes it) and she only drinks Ricoffy but is too polite to tell him. And, believe it or not, we sit down and have a cooked lunch together with not a piece of polony in sight. Be careful of making assumptions about people and situations that you know less than nothing about.

  25. It’s so easy to unwittingly step on toes in SA. I found some of this article a tad cringeworty in parts mostly cause of the subject matter and by virtue of being a black South African. See I have worked for white medems before (not as a maid) and I’m keenly curious by nature I believe it comes down to cultural differences. Our priorities are just different. Ubuntu is a foreign concept to white people. I know this cause I grew up in the suburbs and I still don’t know my white neighbours 1st names and we haven’t uttered more than awkward greetings in 12 years. In black communities, your neighbours are family whether you like them or not. Even our identity is largely linked to the collective. Which i suppose is where the perceived entitlement comes from. It’s a tricky maneuver navigating our way. much as we all wish the end of apartheid came with a dose of amnesia, equality and a kumbaya session with Mandela doing the Madiba dance, it didn’t. We have a long way to go. I did enjoy your piece though. I wish you well in gaining an understanding and also learning how to strike a balance. I too am still learning

    1. Thank you, Ayanda. I was very aware of all of these issues when I wrote it, and it was not without trepidation that I pressed that ‘publish’ button. But it was my experience, and I think the more dialogue we can have around these things, the better. We have a long, long way to go, yes, and the amnesia is very troubling. I experienced a little bit of that Ubuntu when I visited Nosipho in her home in Khayelitsha. She took me for a walk through the neighbourhood, and the open door policy was astonishing and humbling. We literally just walked into peoples’ houses and were welcomed by each and every one. For we uptight white folks, that’s quite a thing. Imagine doing that in Camps Bay or Clifton! We have a lot to learn. Thank you for your insightful comments xxx

  26. I came across this blog via twitter, people were ranting and raving about race this race that so I had to read it myself. This piece is not about race but about maids/house executives or whatever you want to call it (the position I mean). I’m black, had someone helping me around the house and let me tell you, we black people are not different from white people when it comes to relating to our helpers and they are probably even better than us, so people need to get off their high horses.

    I had a helper who also had bad days & good days, bad days were more though, because of that I didn’t have a heart towards her but I was scared to say anything as she was old enough to be my grandmother and I was desperate for help which very hard to get *friends, family and neighbours complained about their helpers*. Then she fell ill & her husband died then went back to LeSotho, unfortunately she died 2months later, went to the funeral and I was shocked to see where/how she lived, from then on I vowed to tread my helpers better.

    Unfortunately after that I got worst helpers after that, the first one ran away cause my house was “too big” to clean, second one came only one a few days after christmas then never came, the third couldn’t clean even if her life depended on it, the current one does & comes as she pleases.

    I have an aunt who changes helpers every three months as she claims that they take advantage of you once they get to know you. I know a lady *from gym* who treats her helpers like slaves. F.Y.I helpers prefer working for white madams than black ones as they claim that they treat them better and they are not stingy as black ones.

    1. Thanks for your interesting insights, Portia, and for reminding everyone that it’s not a white/black thing, but a human being/South African/haves-have-nots thing. I am sure the age and respect element would be very tricky to navigate. Hurray for voices of reason amidst the shouting :-)

  27. OMG what a great read!

    I am a daughter of domestic worker. My mum is 46 and has been with her employers for 17 years now. I have to say not all white people behave like madams from the 80s.

    My mum’s employers took me and my sister to the best boarding school in the country, we both went to varsity and lived in their home until we could both get jobs and be able to move out. My mum has a nice big house that her bosses build for her and she’s still working for them, not because she feels she owes them but because they have an amazing relationship. We are all part of their family and they believe their home won’t be the way it is if she was to leave. My mum and her madam are the biggest besties in the world and their relationshiip is build on respect and honesty. I’ll sure forward them a link to this blog.

    Thanx for this amazing read Suzie.

    1. That’s so cool, Lorna. What a beautiful story! Thank for you illustrating a different (and I think not altogether uncommon) scenario, and that these relationships are often based on mutual love and respect. All the best xx

  28. Hi.

    It’s so sad and there is so much truth in what you said. However, I must say that I don’t necessarily think it’s because of a race dynamic or because of our historical background but generally because being at the bottom of the food chain can be the most demoralising position to be in. Reason being is that even people of “African” decent have the same issues with their helpers, it becomes even more complicated as there is a sense of entitlement with working with someone who is of the same culture or race as you (and I think this only happens with black people though, for some unexplainable reason) . But I have thought about why this is the case, and I think it’s because we live in an era where we all want to experience the benefits of life, respective of race or creed. I know the ladies who make tea and coffee at work sometimes clash with the other “black” employees because they go through life and watch people live.. and it can be quite daunting I guess. But it is difficult for us all. I grew up with a helper and my mom encountered the same issue but fortunately my helper was so sweet and it covered up most of her flaws I guess.
    But my point to all of this is that I don’t think its necessarily about race but buts it’s about class. We (black people) also have helpers steal from us and have moods and we try and make them feel part of the family and so on but it seems as though it makes things worse. I have tried to think of why that is the case and I have tried to put myself in their shoes but I generally think it’s hard. I cannot imagine a life where I watch someone live and I stand by the side lines and yet I do not know where to start making a name for myself. Life without a purpose is probably the worst thing that can happen to a person. But I do agree that the thinking in Africa is completely different to Europe and or other first countries.

  29. Hahahahaha loved the article, growing up the dynamics between these relationships never change. I agree with you, the working relations (employer-employee) needs to remain steadfast,but that being said also need to realise that hardly any working environment and relationship is ever ideal. People come home complaining about their jobs on a daily bases, regardless of how much their earn,and the perks etc. What keeps people satisfied on many occasions is the opportunity for growth and motivation. If you/we can somehow incorporate these factors into such a setting it will go along way. If not ,like Hertsberg model of satisfactions says, we just making sure they their not dissatisfied, instead of creating a productive working environment.

    Loooooooved this piece, took me back to the days growing up with drama in our households with our helpers, who till this day wish I could find each and everyone of them and show my gratitude for help raising me.

  30. As a young white female living in post-apartheid South Africa, I am shocked, embarrassed and deeply disappointed with both the message and the tone of this blog post. Apartheid was such a cruel and devastating time for our country and it should never be dealt with so matter-of-factly. People such as your “maid” are living in such crippling and hopeless circumstances that we could not even begin to truly understand the hardship they face every day. It might be easy for you to laugh this matter off, but then again you don’t have to go home to squalor, disease, poverty, death, rape, violence and substance abuse every single day, after dealing with a spoiled white madam who doesn’t understand respect.

    1. No-one’s denying any of that, Courtney, and this country is ‘post apartheid’ in name only, but truly, if we don’t retain our senses of humour living here we will all die of despair.

    2. how old are you sweetie ? .. did you serve time or were you in exile ? .. how many people do you employ ? .. do you do your own laundry and clean your own floors ? .. do you spend much time in Khayelitsha ? .. do you have a group of culturally mixed friends [I hope so as you will discover so much humor and irony regarding our previous regime passed around like canapés ] .. Do you have children Courtney ? .. no nanny then ? .. good for you darling !!

      1. oh spare me please !!.. I refer to Barack Obama as Barack in conversation or when writing to a friend ! .. I call my co workers by their first names and even have the audacity to call my doctor by his ? .. the sooner we stop tip toeing around this race issue slathered with moral high ground the sooner we will all get on with just living in this glorious multicultural country with all its myriad of complications and problems .. be nice .. pay fairly .. stop being ingratiatingly PC , its naff and annoying .. some of us are white and some of us are black and some of us are brown and there is blow all that we can do about it and most of us just don’t really care .. be nice .. if you want to call this person a maid or a char or a housekeeper or a assistant director of domestic works who on earth cares !! .. personally you can call me anything you like [duck head or garden tap if it pleases you ] if you are nice and fair and don’t step up onto the moral high ground and don’t look for more trouble than we are already in .. apply a bit of wit for flavor and get the hell on with it .. pllllllease !!!

  31. Dear Susan. I sympathise with your position. But I don’t think doing your own dirty work is the answer in this country of desperate unemployment. I think the answer is to get over yourself (your guilt blah blah) and hire a maid (or whatever you want to call her) and simply treat her as you would a waitress. Don’t get too involved in her life. Give her clear orders and clear boundaries. And pay her absolutely as well as you can. That’s the real trick. Sandy

    1. Hi Sandy, did you find yourself in the Coconuts Lamb Stew blog? :-) I have a char once a week whom I adore and she brings her kids sometimes, but it doesn’t work for me having someone around all the time. I work from home and I’m kinda private that way. Thanks for commenting xxx

  32. I guess you had to be there for this one (or be white Sourh African) – otherwise not funny or cute. Quite heartbreaking.

  33. Gosh Susan, your sugar too? and… toilet rolls. Its almost a conspiracy. My sister’s help and mine does exactly the same. toilet rolls and sugar, sometimes the odd bit of clothing too. Always borrowing money and we helped by giving both her son and daughter jobs in an office, both with an attitude and doing less than the others, but we feel almost obligated. Not to mention the things they break from being negligent. The son and daughter have jobs at our office, but they still collect welfare for their kids, and just take off the day, without warning.
    Its a lot of fun. Some even get an RDP house, then let it to others and sometimes even sell it to 4 other people and then put their name down on another list for another house and then they take to the streets and toy toy for yet another and land. As you say, as SA’ns you need all the humour you can muster haha.

  34. The piece makes for an interesting read with the comments adding to my education about current and ex South Africans. The relationship between and employer and employee in a private space like the home is bound to be a tricky one, it is bound to get personal somehow, if both parties are human. The reason why there is so much ‘awkwardness’ between the parties, is the lack of knowledge about ‘the other’. The mere fact that people still see others as ‘the other’ is problematic. You cannot expect to treat others with respect and vice versa when you do know know what counts as respectful in their terms. People with resources tend to expect to be understood while they never get out of their comfort zones to reach out to the other person, on their own terms. Guess they feel they don’t need to. No one is less of a human being. No one is stupid. Let us all remember that the very system that afforded some privileges is the same one that left others poor and desperate. The psychology of oppression goes deeper than most of you realise.

    1. That’s exactly what I was trying to illustrate, Molly – the psychology of oppression. In spite of our best efforts, we were stuck in roles. I was trying, in vain, to make up for the hideous way my people had treated her people, and she was (understandably) furious and doing whatever she could to survive. It was a dynamic neither of us could escape. And it’s a shame, we should have had a great relationship. Before it all went wrong, we genuinely liked one another and got along well. It’s been very interesting seeing readers’ responses – by far the majority of black readers immediately get what I’m saying and offer insightful, considered responses which take into account the complexity of our socio-political context, while it’s the white ones who have a knee-jerk response and accuse me of ignorance and racism. It makes me think we white South Africans are the ones with the real issues and in need of therapy :-)

  35. My mother has never hired a maid so I can’t relate, however, I have seen maids come and go at my grans and aunts and many other close relatives. Most of them do not do their jobs properly, in fact, I haven’t come across one who does. My mom has never hired a maid because when she grew up in the 80’s her mother worked far and they always had maids, the maids would steal their food, not wash or clean until the day before the medem gets back. They would steal my mom and her siblings clothes for their children, and no matter how many times my gran changed maids they would all do the same thing. But of course you feel guilty because you’re a privileged black and you feel obligated to do extra for them otherwise you’re evil or you think you’re “white.” It’s not a race thing, maids, generally, feel entitled. My “cousins” mom is a maid and her employer took the said cousin to the best schools and raised her as her own, she is now 24 and works in their business, and what do you know, she is now pompous as ever and feels entitled and even goes as far as complaining if they don’t do stuff for her. It’s a sad mentality.

  36. This is nauseating. You seem to think yourself liberal and progressive when at most you are smug and indulgent. Your condescending nuggets of ‘humour’ (as you call it) are particularly repulsive because it illustrates how oblivious you are to the problematic nature of your attitude. And this comment section. You should all move to Australia or New Zealand or wherever is trending these days. Take your prada Nd Melissa’s and condescending, privileged attitude with you.

      1. a broken poopstring is really rather dangerous .. you be careful Susanhayden you might now be accused of reckless writing and imprisoned for several years ? .. this could cause the most terrible eruption and result in riots .. I do hope that you are not a representative of the klu klux Klan dear ?

          1. hmmm .. well personally I would laugh and then cry .. the laughter would be for my own wellbeing certain in the knowledge that I [Susanhayden] is a damn fine girl , fair-minded and kind and clever and the tears would be for all the poor sods with their feet pushed up tightly against the starter blocks of high level and small minded humorless umbrage , petty tricky ghastly little people .. so dreary .. tell them to look out the window .. its a lovely day .. and we are so darn lucky to live in this complicated place xx

  37. I do so hope that all participants read Samkelisiwe’s comment above .. whilst nobody is denying our fractured history , this is a commentary about the dynamic between house owner and house keeper which is not dissimilar to the territorial difficulty of having a house guest .. whether your employee is white or green makes little difference .. why should the rules of employment in a household be different to those of a business ? .. If one hires a secretary [now I believe called a PA] and the incumbent rifles through your desk drawers or fills their handbag with office provisions it is clearly unacceptable regardless of their PDI status right ? .. so whether you are a privileged white or a privileged black or a privileged poodle .. its irritating to be mugged and then accused of being a ” spoilt white apartheid despot ” should you dare to voice disapproval or dismay .. I was raised by my black nanny who was the greatest woman on earth , employed some who flew up straight from hell .. [had a bookkeeper for ten years who stole all my money [who was as white as snow I must add ] ].. yes of course there are some dyed in the wool racists in the world .. but please let us not turn a light hearted commentary on circumnavigating the trickiness of domestic assistance into the 2nd Boer war !! ..

  38. You are such a brilliant writer and thinker! I have been my husband’s ‘hand-bag’ up until our retirement here in England and have lived in France, Thailand, Holland and now UK. I have had to deal with maids in every country and my conclusion is this : I am still utterly hopeless at dealing with ‘help’ in the home, no matter which country, but South Africa still poses the biggest challenge. You really should write a book.

  39. I think it’s fair to say everyone has a right to communicate their experience of something from the point of view of how they see it. My fundamental objection to this piece is how this incredibly important manifestation of the extent of the division in this country can become so….humorous. The employment of a maid seems like a small issue but it signifies something far more significant because there are not many places in this society where ‘different’ people come together. It’s at this point of collision where we learn just how far we’ve come (or in most instances, not come). This is not a race issue this is a poverty and injustice issue. It’s hard? Of course it’s hard…was it ever going to be easy? How do I speak to someone who couldn’t get an education, or whose parents fought every day to ensure that food arrived from somewhere? Whose real home was somewhere else? Whose school was so ill equipped that you probably learnt more at home? I guess I am mostly saddened that the piece has unearthed a myriad of voices that have essentially and collectively started to sing ‘yeah, maids can be bonkers, ne?’ We are still not talking about a human being in front of another human being, working hard to find each other; each relinquishing their respective power to acknowledge that at the end of the day we are not so different.

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