A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

“I wake up at 4:30am because Catherine and Stuart (not their real names) like me to serve them their tea in bed in the morning, and it takes a long time to get from Khayelitsha to Camps Bay. The first thing I do when I wake up is take a bath and get dressed. Then, I get my older children up, make them oats for breakfast and get them dressed. My son, who is 11, takes the baby, who is one-and-a-half to crèche by taxi in the morning. My other daughter helps me feed and dress her before she walks to school with her friend. I have to leave my house at 5:30am to make sure I am at work by 7:30am when they wake up. Sometimes there is traffic or strikes or the trains aren’t running properly, and I get late. I have been late twice already, and if I’m late a third time Catherine is going to give me a written warning.

When I get to work I change out of my clothes and into my uniform. The first thing I do is wash my hands, put the kettle on and get the tea tray ready. Once they have their tea and rusks in bed, I go and wake the boy. I look after two kids, a boy of three and girl who is six months. The baby will be with the night nurse. Then the night nurse goes home. I get the boy up and make him breakfast. He likes French toast and rooibos tea in the morning. He is a good boy. I give the baby porridge and dress her. Stuart goes to work and Catherine goes to the gym. While she is gone I make her bed, pick up her clothes and shoes from the floor (she is messy, that one) and put everything away. I put the baby on my back when I clean the house. Sometimes it’s hard because the boy wants me to play with him, but if the house isn’t tidy when Catherine comes home she gets cross. I am not allowed to put TV on for him because she wants me to only play with him. So that is difficult.

In the morning we go to the park. Catherine likes us to get out so that she can have some peace and quiet. I pack some food for the kids. There is a park close by, and we play there. I have a friend who goes to the same park, so we meet each other. Sometimes I worry about my girl. She doesn’t like the crèche, she misses me. She cries in the night and wants me. It’s a long day for her to be without her mother. I took her there when she was one month old because I had to go back to work. I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore. She was always sick and I think it is because I couldn’t breastfeed her. It is a long time for a baby to be without her mother, but I must work. My husband earns R3500 a month. It is not enough for us to live.

When we get home Catherine likes me to make her a salad. She won’t eat bread because she’s on a diet. Only fish and chicken every day, but she is too, too thin. Then I make lunch for the kids and we sit together in the garden and eat. In the afternoon when I put the boy down for his sleep I put the baby on my back so she can sleep and I do the ironing. Then I start with supper. I used to work in a restaurant so I know how to cook. Stuart wants to eat meat every night. I make steak or a stew or I cook chicken and vegetables. I bath the kids at 5pm. At 5:30pm I must leave to catch my bus, but sometimes Catherine asks me to iron the dress she wants to wear if she is going out. Then I get home very late. It takes me two hours to get home. My kids are already home. I leave the key with the neighbour and they let themselves into the house and do their homework. My son fetches the baby at crèche after he finishes school. I cook supper and I am very tired.

My husband comes home at 7 o clock. At the end of the month the money is finished. Then we only eat pap and vegetables. Together we earn R7000, but most of that is for school fees and food and transport. Transport is very expensive, I must give my son R20 a day and my bus costs R150 per week. My husband works on a Saturday too, so Sundays we are all together. We go to church in the morning and then we eat meat for lunch. We only eat meat on a Sunday. I am lucky for my job, and my husband is lucky. There are lots of people who are not working. Then I try to do everything right. I tidy the cupboards and I wash the curtains. Catherine gives me old toys and clothes. We are also lucky that we have our own house, but in the winter the roof leaks and the kids get sick because it is always wet. There is water on the floor and our shoes and clothes are wet. It is very cold in our house in the winter. I am looking for an old washing machine because it is difficult washing all the clothes by hand. When I get home from work I wash. It is difficult to make the clothes get dry in the winter.

I have good kids, but my girl struggles at school. Her teacher wants her to have extra lessons, but it costs money and we don’t have money. If my kids are sick it is a problem because if I don’t go to work Catherine gets very cross. If the baby has a fever she is not allowed to go to crèche. Then my son must stay home from school and take care of her. I am worried then because he is only a boy of 11. It is not so easy, no. I have a good job. They give me paid leave at Christmas, two weeks. My family is in the Eastern Cape. It is very expensive to take the whole family so every three years we take the bus to see my parents for Christmas. They are old now. I don’t know if I will see my parents again before they die.”

As told to me by Florence, 36.

134 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

  1. Heatbreaking stuff…the insensitivity of some people and the sense of entitlement is unbelievable. I know not everyone who has a maid is like this but, this happens a lot

  2. It’s a total lack of respect that leads people to think that they and their children are more important than their employee and her family. No level of education will ever eradicate selfishness!

  3. It immediately brought back images from the book/movie The Help. it seems like nothing changes…this could almost have been written decades ago. Is there now a minimum wage and is it enough?

  4. I am new to reading your blog – thanks for accepting me. This story breaks my heart and makes my blood boil. How can people treat others like this, I will never know :(. I strongly believe in Karma – what goes around comes around. What an incredibly strong woman Florence is – I take my hat off to her and her family.

  5. R16/hr…………..mmmmmmmmm and this is to look after the “most precious things in the world!”
    Dear ol Catherine needs a slap upside the head. Actually makes me feel sick.

  6. I’m now fuming, I want to know what people expect? What do they pay? Really pay? Not what they think they should but what they actually do

  7. I had such a good relationship with my helper, she started work when I left in the morning (*.00 a.m.) and left when I got home, usually about 2 p.m. I figured her children needed her in the afternoon. She also never worked when I was off work, I always told her to take the time off.. She was paid for a full day throughout. We all loved her and she knew it. Makes me sick to read things like this.

  8. I recently read another blog where the employer of a maid went to her house, and delved further into her daily life, assessing what her needs are, and then calculating what she needs to earn to live a better quality life. He and his wife have adjusted their expectations and finances to accommodate her and pay her what she deserves (hourly rate). While they couldn’t afford to pay her as much as she needed, they paid her more than they were originally, but she worked less hours for them. They then organised another position for her to make up the balance. Pity more people don’t/can’t/won’t take it to that level.

  9. I have worked for the past 25 years in black education – first as an educator then as the principal of the school – I am a privileged White woman. I am recently retired and can honestly say that those years were the best years of my life and I learnt how to become a real human being because of the wonderful Rainbow South Africans that worked with me. Sadly, what you say is true…so many of the people who serve us every day are unable to live a “normal” life – spend time with their families, allowing their children to be children and earn a decent wage. The cost of transport affects our workforce a hell of a lot more than is reasonable – I had children attending my school whose parents were paying R600per month to get them there(taxi fares) and then they still had to find R640per month for school fees (which in todays terms is extremely reasonable). If you are only earning R2400 as a domestic worker you only have R1000 left for all other household expenses. It broke my heart because they should have been making use of the schools in their own areas but schooling is less than perfect and parents will do anything to lift their children out of the place they find themselves in…even if it costs them everything literally!!! needless to say we found ways to help and sponsor these families… but this dilemma is rife in this beloved country of ours.

    As far as domestic workers are concerned…if you are blessed enough not to have to work surely as a young mother you can do some of the “mothering” and cooking for your family!!! Send your domestic worker home at a reasonable hour so that she can be a mother too…and she is entitled to 4 months maternity leave …have a heart and give her at least 50% of her salary during this time…the rest she can get from unemployment. Shame on you Catherine and Stuart!!

  10. Wow this is so sad.. I am 18 years old and I am very much aware of these happenings – Florence seemed to have described my parents. To help our domestic, I used to help her clean the house so that she wouldn’t get into trouble by my parents. It is so sad that people have to live in these situations. I am so blessed and grateful for everything I have.. Thank you for posting this article – it has truly been an eye-opener and my heart reaches out for Florence xx

  11. Makes me feel so, so sad. Why does this ‘precious’ woman have to have a night nurse!!! And hope she puts shit in her cake too!

  12. I love your blog. It is sad to hear how very selfish some people are. No regard for the people who serve them. This lady does not lead an enviable life at all. Her children never see her and that boy is so young to be responsible for the young on. It’s just plain sad. I wish
    Catherine could read this. Diane

  13. This is nothing unusual – there are a lot of women here going through the same and worse, and part of the problem is that we simply don’t ask. We really have no idea of the reality of the lives of those that are looking after us because they smile and say “yes, ma’am” and we assume that everything is ok. Because we want to. I’m not saying we are all like this, because obviously we are not, but this life is an everyday reality for many of those who are “lucky enough” to have even what Florence has.
    The question really is what are we all, as individuals, prepared to do ? I had a visitor from the uk last year who was very vehement in his condemnation of the conditions that most people here live with, and disgusted that we could even consider staying in a country that tolerates it, even though we personally do what little we can. So I asked him what he was going to do. What, when he got home, was he going to do about it ? Well nothing, of course. How could he do anything, he asked ? My point for him was that you cannot condemn a society if you are not prepared to assist yourself, regardless of your location or circumstances.
    The dilemma with the millions of Florences in the world is that although they are being exploited, they are still in a better position than they would be if they did not have the job that is exploiting them. Remember when the minimum wages for domestic workers came in ? Many lost their jobs, and although the minimum wage is a good thing, and still pitifully low, they would have preferred to have something, however little. So Florence will continue to cope with what life has thrown at her, because for now she has little choice if she wants something better for her children.
    I have put 3 “underprivileged” children through school, and one through college, and it will never be enough, but it was what I was able to do. I don’t have a “domestic” or any staff now, though I wish I could as it might at least be easing someone’s plight.
    So to all of you who read this and are quite rightly indignant I say this… Be indignant. Please, be angry. Wake up tomorrow, next week, next month, and still ache for Florence.
    But what are you, just you, actually going to do ?

  14. Absolutely heartbreaking. The lady of the house sounds like a priveledged white cow. It amazes me how people can pay their maids so little money to do everything. It is so wrong. I think the solution is for maids to work for two families but keep their original salaries so they are working 5 days a week and getting double the salary. How can anyone live off such a small amount of money. In Australia you pay $20 an hour for cleaning and that’s pure cleaning not washing, laundry, picking things up off the floor, etc. Most people don’t have a cleaner or have someone 2 hours a week max.

  15. What a sobering article. Though I’ve re-posted other of Susan’s articles in FB, I’ve realized that I’m too embarrassed to re-post this for the terrible light that it puts South Africans in and how little things have moved on over the years . But then again, maybe things won’t change unless more people read ‘the story from the other side’ . Well done Susan on another great blog!

  16. Thanks for this, I’ve always assumed that my helper has it “easy.” But this made me realise that in fact, she is away from her own family all week (she lives in) to clean up, and look after my family. I’m sure being a maid was not by choice, it was out of necessity, she does it because she has to, not because it was her calling.. and the fact that she does it loyally and cheerfully makes me want to go and hug her right now. Thank you x

  17. I am pissed off to the max at how lazy an pathetic some woman can be..being a mother is demanding an we all need a little help at some point but shit if ur not working surely you can take care of the children you gave birth to and your’ helper’ can help and go home and arrive at a reasonable hour so she can be a mother to..whoever Cathrine an Stuart are may you get a cramp in your ass an catch a wake up!useless

  18. This made me so sad and angry that there are still people out there that behave this way! Catherine is a mother (although I am not sure why as she never seems to spend any time with her kids!) and it doesn’t take much to be sympathetic to your employee when their children are sick, especially when she doesn’t even work herself! Lazy, self centered, spoilt brat!

  19. I grew up in a household, which was similar to this however in my adult life have chosen to live very differently! I have a wonderful “full time” maid who earns very well, eats what we eat and goes home early to look after her own family. I cook myself, look after my own children, make sure my house is tidy and do the washing myself. I am sure the lovely lady who helps me with the cleaning of my home is very grateful for her job! I know that there are many more people like me!!!!!!!!

    1. Bravo! There certainly are many who do, and we make an important contribution to many people via those we employ. Good to be reminded of why its important to treat people well. Good on you Nicola! Keep up being an employer worthy of emulating!

  20. Ummmm hello! Are we reading the same article here???? I don’t think I read about one ounce of ill treatment or abuse that this domestic servant has received from her employer. Florence’s is just like anyone else!!! Working to make a living, traveling long distances to get to her her job,
    putting up with a grumpy manager, getting home late when there are extra jobs to do at work…it’s called a job people !!! Florence probably loves her job, she is Mum and it probably makes her happy to care for children during the day…everyone would love to stay at home with there own children but these days most families reply on 2 incomes to get by…what makes this situation any different to someone employed by a wealthy business owner who goes off to play golf while everyone in the office gets to just work and eat there measly left overs for lunch ??? confused ???

    1. What makes this situation different is that she earns vastly less than almost all people in the particular kind of work-boat you speak of.

      What makes this situation different is that she was given a QUARTER of the maternity leave she was legally entitled to.

      What makes this situation different is that she doesn’t have the cash at the end of the month to even begin saving for her kids’ tertiary education.

      What makes this situation different is that she won’t be headhunted by a better boss closer to home, she doesn’t have the financial option of living close to work, and her daily commute will therefore always be that bad.

      What makes this situation different is that her employer is happy to have her waking up at 4.30 rather than 5.30 or 6, just because she rather likes tea in bed.

      What makes this situation different is that she does not have the time, flexibility or personal transport to take her kids to or from school, help them with their homework, and devote the hour or two that even most hardworking office people can manage to.

      What makes this situation different is that she doesn’t go on Facebook or to blog-postings at her office desk in the moments when no one is looking.

      What makes this situation different is, perhaps ultimately, that far too many people who could possibly employ her, are naive enough to think their lot is just as difficult as hers.

      What makes this situation different is the absurdity that some people need to ask ‘what makes this situation any different ???’

      Shame on you.

      1. Well put! This article really puts things into perspective. It never once sounded like she was complaining, of anything it sounded like she was grateful for her job. And is just like to add that I doubt very much that she enjoys looking after other people’s children when she so clearly misses her own!

  21. This is only one side of the story though. I employ a domestic worker from 9am to 2,30pm. I pay her R40 an hour. I am not unique.

  22. Great read thanks Jane and Florence. I have been hooked on this blog since yesterday!

    It is so sad that this is what is happening to our domestic workers. I can’t stand any human being who abuses/exploits or disrespects another. But it is not only happening in South Africa and it isn’t only happening to one race. Before I left South Africa 12 years ago I was working two jobs AND I had a qualification (day job was in a beauty salon and evening job as a bartender) just to take home R4000 a month! I was absolutely exhausted constantly, but at least I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel (that was to move abroad and find a more promising career/salary and of course see the world). My boyfriend at the time was earning R1800 a month as a Warehouse Assistant and he worked long hours too. Hmm I think we were waaay underpaid because we struggled to make ends meet!

    I lived in Dubai for 6 years and learned that the Asian domestic workers there get raped and beaten by their employees on a regular basis on top of the ridiculously long hours they are expected to work. They don’t get a ticket to their home country for two years at a time so they see their families once every two years! When they land into Dubai their passports are taken away from them so there is no way for them to escape.
    The Asian construction workers in Dubai are treated shockingly as well. They work 15+ hour days on building sites helping to put up those sky scrapers that line Dubai in temperatures of 50 degrees celsius and more! I’ve heard stories of how some of them get sent back to India/Pakistan with not a stitch of money because their employer hasn’t even paid them for their work. And this is the tip of the iceberg… People have exploited people from the dawn of time and it will always be that way, as awful as it is.
    But on the upside there are always kind people who look after their employees and value them. It’s luck of the draw who you end up with.

  23. I’ve never understood why people can’t bring their own babies/toddlers with them to work, especially when their employers have kids themselves…

    And that’s despite the rest of the nonsense where people are being served tea in bed. That’s shameful. You know I’ve noticed weirdly enough that domestic workers here in Cape Town have it quite a bit worse than most of the ladies I know in Pretoria. Which isn’t what one would expect. At my parents house Nellie rocks up at 8, it’s my mom that wakes at 5,30 and my dad’s usually been up since 4.00 anyway with all his work he brings home. They support Nellie in every way they can, have helped to pay for her children’s tertiary education and lots of other stuff because they actually appreciate her, she’s part of the family. Here I’ve seen ladies walking to and from Oranjezicht and I can’t believe they don’t get dropped off or picked up by the employers. Cape Town’s rich are like a totally different species all together…
    Some people are just ridiculously selfish.

  24. What a dysfunctional couple – totally self-absorbed. Not only are they unfit employers but they should have been sterilised before they brought children into this world – they obviously have no love for them.

  25. Florence’s story is of course heartbreaking, but so is the story of everyone in her position, and NOT ONLY in South Africa. There are the same stories to be told in every country of the world where there is desperate poverty and unemployment. It breaks my budget, but instead of doing away with domestic staff, I employ two people : with the wages they get, they support four families. If Florence did not have her job she’d be in a far worse position, however tough it might be. My grandson’s best school buddy is a little guy who lives in Khayelitsha. His mother is a domestic worker and his father sells vegetables. He catches 2 buses and it takes him 2 hours to get to school in Camps Bay, and 2 hours to get home in the afternoon. He is just little. Imagine his parents’ concerns about putting this small child on a bus alone every day. But without their work – and his mother’s wages as a domestic worker – he wouldn’t be able to attend a good school and perhaps work his way up out of the township one day. That is their pride. And that is why Florence goes to work every day.

  26. Very sad and very true for so many domestic workers, but why are we all assuming that “Catherine and Stuart” are white? Abuse of power is not just a race issue!

  27. Who are these people who have domestic servants? Some uber rich aristocrats? I don’t think so.
    More likely just lazy, spoiled (rude words).
    People like this should live in a first world nation for a while – get used to doing things for themselves.
    No doubt they will say they are creating employment. But do they pay a living wage – R250 a day at least in an urban area – I doubt it. More likely they pay a stipend no better than slavery

  28. I would like to offer the flip side of this story……………………..I do believe there are people like Chaterine & Stuart in South Africa, but believe me, not many. My husband and myself run our own business and have 3 sons, 1 grown up who lives in a cottage in our garden and the other 2 are finishing school.

    We have employed a stunning couple for the past 20 years, and they are part of our family. My day starts by getting up at 5a.m and making sure that the kids have healthy packed lunches for the day, my hubby and I too. I then wake our children up at 6.15am and start a good healthy cooked breakfast for them. After breakfast I clean the kitchen and stack the dishwasher, so that when Mandy our domestic worker arrives, she is not bombarded with dirty dishes. I check that our boys have made their beds and and make mine. I get dressed for work and apply some make up.

    Dash out of the door with the kids, drop them at school then make my way back home, where we await our labourers, We are Landscapers, my hubby and I load our bakkies with all the neccesary picks, spades, etc and plants. Our staff arrive at 8am and off we go to a full days work in the blaring South African sun with our 4 labourers.

    Mandy our domestic worker arrives at about 8.30/8.45am and starts her days work. She cleans our home and does our washing and ironing. Mandy has lunch from 1.pm to 1.45 pm and leaves our home at 4pm. She is well paid and we care about her and her family. When the government run clinics dish out paracetamol pills and tell her there is nothing they can do for her, we take her to see our family doctor and pay for her medication (or her children’s medication), we have also organised a retirement scheme for her and pay towards it monthly.

    Mandy works Monday to Friday, never on weekends as she needs time with her own family and as we don’t often work on the weekend, we can generally manage the rest.

    Our children have been brought up to always be respectful to our staff, we would never entertain anything less.

    All in all I think that Mandy has a good life.

    Not everyone in South Africa is a spoilt and selfish as the couple in your story, and I think you need to offer a look at the others who do not behave this way.

  29. Is there a way we can help? Like an organization for donations for a family like above. I’m concerned that Florence works so hard yet struggles. Is there a way to help?

  30. What can I say … Florence, you are a gem, let us feel sorry for the so called superior feeling of the “madam”. Justice will prevail ….

  31. This is such a sad story. and reflects so much of truth as I personally know more than one domestic worker who was in such a predicament.
    with some people, help around the home is needed… with others, it’s pure laziness. People need to catch a wake up and grow some compassion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s