The Right to Write

mountain and rainbow

A week or so ago I was invited to join a discussion group because the topic they’d picked out for the evening was my controversial blog, The Trouble with Maids. While every part of me wanted to hide in the cupboard rather than go forth and own my words, I also knew it would be a good (albeit uncomfortable) learning experience to show up and hear what people had to say. It’s by far the most un-PC thing I’ve written, and it’s the one I feel most conflicted about. Because, honestly, while it comes from a heart space of trying to bridge divides and decipher some of the complexity of the relationship between black and white South Africans, I do sound a bit like a whiny, privileged madam and I talk about the fact that she was stealing my perfume and loo paper and sugar without presenting the other side of the story – a big part of it being, of course, that when people are paid decent wages they don’t need to steal sugar.

And it was hard sitting there in the firing line, and afterwards I even wondered whether I should delete the blog entirely because who the hell am I, with my comfortable middle class life, to make judgements about domestic workers who live in shitholes and spend their days eking out a meager existence while the likes of me have cushy jobs and luxury cars and the time, frankly, to write blogs and attend discussion groups. And lately, honestly, I’m feeling like a bit of an arsehole and wondering whether I have the right to these opinions and to write about things like that, or whether I should shut the hell up and be happy for small mercies – like the fact that my house wasn’t torched back in 1994 and that, despite the horrors of apartheid (which we rather like to forget about) we transitioned into a democracy utterly unscathed, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. Really. Did our lives change in the slightest? Mine didn’t.

As I write this, I can hear the char mopping my kitchen floor. Later I’ll drive my eldest daughter to the beach with the aircon on high and nice Kauai smoothies while we wait the hour-and-a-half before her ballet class. She, on the other hand, will wait in queues to take a series of trains and taxies home while she hopes her children, who travel alone, will make it back in one piece. Extra-murals are out of the question. Then they’ll eat something starchy and filling because that’s what they can afford and go to bed very tired and probably pretty stressed out about how the hell they’re going to get through another month. And this is me speculating – I don’t even know the half of it. A while ago I tried to talk to her about her life, but I was met with the kind of resigned and slightly mistrustful reticence I used to get from Nosipho. She is far too polite to be outwardly hostile, but her eyes said, ‘who are you to ask me this? What do you understand about my world?’ And she is absolutely right. Until I’ve walked in her shoes I’ll never get it.

While it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, a lot of important issues came up on that discussion night – like, how intimidating we white people can be just by existing. And it’s something I’ve never considered before, but on reflection it’s so true. Sometimes I find myself assuming a familiarity with black strangers (in shops, whatever) that I wouldn’t use with white people. It’s an arrogance and a sense of entitlement our kind has gotten down to a fine art, and one which we aren’t even aware of. We also talked about how we white people (and it was largely white people night that night – usually the group is racially mixed), when faced with something incomprehensible, are afraid of looking stupid and endorsing the us-them divide and not understanding ‘black culture’, so instead of just asking the questions – (why are you late again? Why do you always come to my child’s birthday party without a gift? Why do you take ALL my fruit with you when you leave?), we put it down to an African thing. When it isn’t, actually.

The first thing my char did the other day when she arrived at work was complain about how all the other parents were late for the school meeting. Normally I would have nodded and thought, ‘well, I guess it’s an African thing.’ But, since it had just come up, I took a deep breath and said: ‘but, I always thought it was a bit of an African thing, and that nobody really minded.’ She said, ‘yes, I mind a lot. It’s very inconvenient.’ And it was such a relief being direct with her and getting a straightforward answer instead of surmising and second-guessing and pretending to understand things I don’t.

And the other pretty important thing that came up was the issue of whether we are even entitled to an opinion. For me, I have these opposing views – one is that we white folk need to stop sounding off and let other people speak for once; that, over the years we’ve written the history books, colonized everything we could and made all the rules, and it’s time we stepped back and let other people take the podium; tell their stories; use the voices that have been silenced for so long to present another side to the story of this divided country. And then there’s the part of me that thinks, I didn’t invent apartheid; I was also a victim, in a sense; why should I suffer and be silent for the rest of my days for the stupid mistakes a bunch of horrible, hoary old men made before I was born?

It’s a complicated topic, and I don’t begin to know the answer, but I do think that unless we raise these issues for discussion and listen to what others have to say and how they feel we’re never going to reach any kind of understanding of one another, or of ourselves and why we do and think the things we do. And it’s one thing keeping quiet out of respect for other opinions, and another thing keeping quiet out of inertia and ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with issues that makes us uncomfortable. Because we all like to think of ourselves as basically nice people. But, are we when daily, consciously, we turn a collective blind eye to the gross inequalities which beset this country we live in? Are we really better than those who instituted segregationist politics back in the day when the system is one we still largely accept and support?

Apartheid might not exist in our legislation, but it’s alive and well nonetheless. And while we pretend it isn’t nothing is going to change. And I’m as guilty as anyone. I haven’t made up my mind about the blog yet, but since it sparked a lot of dialogue maybe I should let it be. What I have made my mind up about is that I will attend that discussion group for as long as I am welcome because just by talking I’ve seen how much potential there is for learning, and it’s never too late to challenge yourself and change the way you think. And if you’re going to live in South Africa this stuff is really important.

Summing it up as only Eddie Izzard can :-)

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44 thoughts on “The Right to Write

  1. you are one very, very clever and sensitive person. The complexity of South Africa is overwhelming but you have managed to nail it on the head.

  2. Please do continue with the controversial (thought-provoking?) blog posts. Many of us are in similar situations thinking about the same things (I would like to be able to define the NEW new South African, a mythical being that contributes in the most effective way to their surroundings, and then try to be that person), and your posts are important points of clarity along this journey.

    (BTW: I mailed you a few months back about returning. We have now actually returned after 13 beautiful years in Holland, and it is, as you warned me then, awesome!)

  3. Don’t stop! Your blogs always leave me with something to ponder. I usually send them on to people who I believe would be interested in that particular topic. You make me laugh – and you make me cry. Your honesty is powerful, refreshing and sometimes brutal. I love your writing,
    Go girl!

  4. Tjenar from a fellow Saffer who also lived in Svenska :-) Your work is thought provoking and inspiring. It was your dream to write and share your thoughts and your feelings, please don’t let others dictate how your dream should be played out. Well done and keep it up!!

  5. Please don’t stop writing. Everytime you shift my perspective and I am so grateful. You write the things that are in my head but I can’t put into words. Thank you.

  6. I think racial lines are starting to become blurred – we are getting somewhere, and you contribute to this.
    Income lines, on the other hand, are becoming chasms. And as it’s become a world phenomenon, it becomes harder to fix locally. Many of the difficulties in understanding are “simply” financial ones. This certainly doesn’t make it easier to cross the divide, but perhaps it changes the focus.

  7. Love your blog!

    I agree that “white guilt” strangles our vocal chords and we submit to inertia way too often. We really, really don’t know how to communicate honestly. Thank you so much for the reminder.

  8. I am not sure that we do not communicate as much as it is that we do not really know what to communicate about? How and where do we start? So your blog is, as ever, a fabulous starting point as, in your blunt and honest style, you give us a starting point. And all we need to do is start and that way we can confront our assumptions and find true and liberating ones instead. And often that comes in the listening as well as in the talking
    So don’t EVER stop. Please

  9. Please Don’t stop writing your blog – I sent it to all my bookclub friends – that’s how much I love it, and as others have said – you say all the things we are thinking, you do it with honesty, and how little of that there is around today. You’re funny (the best part of you), and you write well – so carry on – you are gaining readership I am sure as I type – and you’re brave to face your critics – so keep going …………we are all out here listening! Thank you.

  10. Learning to talk and talk honestly with no fear of reprisal or accusation of rascist tendencies seems to be the one thing that the white, privileged middle class are not yet capable of doing, This fear and guilt is so embedded in us that we often confuse what we are saying/thinking /writing by beating around the bush and not taking ownership of our thoughts or words. And one of the most confusing places this manifests itself seems to be in the relationship we have with our domestic employees, who generally in this country are not white. And especially when they are right inside your home and family. The issues often misinterpreted as racial remarks not based race at all, but usually an issue of class and in this country, the class distinctions are vast and obvious and scary. The haves and the have nots. This is not a white/black issue but it always appears so.” We need to talk” , as Jonathan Jansen tells us in his many ways on many different forums. And the thing to consider is that after only 20 years of enormous change , no-one can expect massive shifts. These things take time and I think most whites would agree that nothing much has changed for them.
    What we need to change is in accepting that some people feel more strongly about these issues than others and are brave enough to say it like it is.
    Thank heavens we have people like you, one of the brave ones, who brings out these issues and is ready to face the music! Would love to have been in your discussion group- well done disco pants girl! You’re cool and I love reading your stuff

  11. Don’t stop writing. I don’t always agree with your opinions but isn’t that the point of writing – to share and discuss ideas? You are honest and it takes courage to do so. I sometimes think that “white” people (substitute any hegemonic group here in place of white) cannot see that their views/ values/likes/dislikes/ cultural mores are not shared by everyone, and so get angry/entitled/resentful when challenged. It is a blind spot.

  12. The ‘maids’ blog was the first of yours I’d read, and I was hooked. You wrote the stuff I thought, and made sense of it for me. The latest blog also reflects what I think. What I’m trying to say is please do not remove it. It represents feelings that were true at that moment, and if they change, then that is growth. And we are all growing with you. And one day we will need to be reminded how far we have come. I love your writing!

  13. It takes courage to write from the heart as you do – I just hope you continue to be brave and honest in such a marvellous way.

  14. Hi Susan. I read this post with a bit of sadness. Sadness because I consume every single one of your posts and relate to them all, because you always hit the nail on the head and becuase you should never EVER apologise for what you write or for what you feel. Enough with the guilt, enough with apologising for where we find ourselves in this world. You strike me (and I have never met you) as someone with a huge heart and an even bigger mind. You have an opinion and it counts. Your blog about the maid was brilliantly written and if anything, to me anyway, portrayed the employers as the tossers they are. Dont apologise for it and please dont go back to the discussion group – you dont have to defend anything. Keep writing – I can see a book of all your fabulous blogs. And bugger the trolls.

    1. Oh no, did I make them sound like ogres? They are actually a wonderful bunch of women, all engaging with these issues in their own personal capacities. Didn’t mean to give them a bad rap – the points that were raised were all valid, and I agreed with them! But thank you so much for your support and lovely, lovely words always. Please let’s get that dinner together! :-)

      1. Hey Susan. Not at all, I was just worried about how you might be feeling :) your blog is brilliant. I believe H is arranging a dinner – look forward to it!

  15. As always well written, startling honest and best of all you hit the nail on the head with a touch of humor! Reading your work reminds me why I lOVE living in this complex but wonderful country. Thank you.

  16. I clearly remember that post and I remember thinking how well written and honest it was. As is this one, stay true it’s what readers value

  17. yesterday i went to the bank and when i got home could not locate my cell phone. My mind immediately went to the lady who had come up close to me to reach past and get a deposit slip.. my suspicious mind took the negative approach and I was inwardly convinced I had been robbed of my cell phone in the bank and that I would have to go and view their security footage. The fact that we had stood in the queue together and chatted in a friendly way only added to my conviction that the lady had had ample opportunity to rob me… How sick is that and how stuck I am in my past experiences of being robbed in the street and even at gunpoint? The fact that my cell phone was in my house and I had survived another day of going to the bank to do a deposit of cash which I had counted out in view of everyone instead of doing it in the privacy of my home office, did not come into the equation. The conversation does not end at maids, but involves a complex set of actions and reactions for the last almost 400 years. One wants to be objective and to be able to see things from the perspective of the black man on the street.. God forgive us for our glass house viewpoint when members of our own race group are just as corrupt and may He forgive us for the way we perpetuate bigotry and prejudice in our daily lives with what we say. May He forgive those too who have found satisfaction in stirring up the hatred and fear on both sides of the divide that we all try to ignore. Yes, apartheid is still there in our minds and will take a while to dissipate as we raise our children alongside one another.

  18. Hi Susan

    I have been receiving your newsletter with your latest blog posts for a few weeks now, and I truly LOVE it!

    Your writing is unpretentious and real, and damn entertaining too.

    I have started a newsletter of my own, as a side-project, as I work a full day job… called The Nutcracker. I always use this little blurb to explain to people what the NC is about:

    The daily newsletter targeted at the young working woman who wants to stay on top of what is going on in local and international news, what is happening in her city over the weekend, the hip places to go to, quick and easy recipes to try for dinner tonight etc. This is for the woman who has to balance life, work, family, friends etc, so she doesn’t have time to trawl blogs and news sites to find all these need-to-know bits of info daily. The Nutcracker will give you enough detail on breaking news so that you will be equipped to hold your own in any conversation at gym, at a dinner party, around the water cooler or walking on the promenade with friends. The tagline, cracking the nut daily on the news you want to know, says it all. The Nutcracker skims the news for you so you get it in a short and easily readable format, from Monday to Friday, free and directly to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.nutcrackernews.co.za.

    I upload all newsletters on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/nutcrackernews) for reference. Currently, I am still building a subscriber base, and to sign up is completely free, so no money is coming in on this little project… I know this is quite a stretch, but is there any way that you do advertising or any sort of collab on your blog?

    Looking forward to your feedback,

    1. Hi Nina
      I just subscribed. I really liked yesterday’s – such a good idea, especially the news segment as I’m allergic to newspaper language. Why do they write like that? The language is so masculine and impenetrable. To me, anyway, maybe I’m dof. So I’m beyond thrilled if someone will sum it all up for me in a few easy paragraphs. Look forward to the next one :-)

  19. Don’t stop writing, Susan! You’re brave enough to make yourself vulnerable. You have to become vulnerable in order to be viable. It’s in the pursuit of this kind of honesty about all things South African that will contribute to the South Africa we all want it to be. May the healing continue!

  20. Please don’t stop writing your blog…sometimes reading your words makes me literally squirm but I continue because they also make me think and look at my own preconceived ideas and thoughts and that cannot be a bad thing!
    Thanks once again for a thought provoking post!

  21. I like your topics Susan.

    Complex as SA may be, we also need to be true to ourselves. I don’t think you need to apologise for the sugar and toilet roll saga, it happens to me and my sister regularly and we have raised it with the ladies. Stealing is not to be indulged due to lower wages. There are many poor people in the world and stealing in countries like Sri Lanka and some other similar countries are almost unheard of. And my son who worked for a British company over there says those people really are very very poor indeed, but there’s no crime.

    I cant go along to get along and some things here should stop being excused. The more we blame poverty, the more we encourage crime. Poverty is worldwide and in a number of countries where crime and theft is not entertained, hardly any of it happen.

    You are right about so many things and maybe it is a generation thing. Our kids grow up differently and seem to have no problem with any race or culture.

    I do think the privilege ‘madam’ is a thing of the past and a job is a job regardless of whether you’re a cleaner or the president. So I don’t know why it has to be excused and singled out. its just a job.

    There are many people who travel by train and taxi and it used to be a mode of transport for all before crime spun out of control on public transport over here and it is used all over the world, so why is it singled out, as if its exclusive to SA’ns. In Australia, I know some family of mine used trains to get to work and the distance was an hour away to and fro.

    I get sick of the pity parties. Our black middle class are growing super-fast and according to some quarters it has outstripped the white middle-class in ratio and twenty years plus down the line, do we still have to make excuses.

    Its a job and the Europeans use bicycles, and in the UK and US they use trains, why should we be different.

    That is my simplistic view.

  22. Please don’t stop, Susan. I love the way you make me chuckle and even guffaw about our complicated country instead of fuming! You have the courage and humour to put into words what we all experience and if you ever write about yourself in the role of “white madam” you are always poking fun at yourself.

  23. Dear Susan

    Don’t you DARE stop writing!!! I have just discovered you, and recommended your blog to friends as I absolutely love it.

    You are SO loyal and positive about South Africa and as you say, you can write what you damn well please. People don’t have to read your blog – you are not writing text books, nor do you have any kind of responsibility to answer to explain to anyone. You are telling it like you see it and I agree with your sentiments 100% so “those people” must go and find some other High Horses to ride.

    Regards Lorna van der Merwe (A South African who has just moved to Mumbai, after 4.5 years in Buenos Aires – so you see I NEED you).

    >

  24. When I first moved to SA, I swore black and blue that I would not be hiring a maid…. but then I came to realise that there were so many people out of work and that many women were desperate for employment. Do I really need help in my home? No, not really. Do I need help with my special needs child? Yes, for my own sanity I need the help in order to help myself. I employ two ladies, both HIV; and we have a good working relationship. I take care of them and they help me. Win win. Keeping writing the controversial stuff as we all need a good shake up. Have just found out that my husband has subscribed to your blog! :-)

  25. Don’t delete it. It’s a complicated topic. It’s good and reassuring to see and read that other people have the same or similar conflicts going on within their own heads. It;s not about having all the answers. It’s about being self-critical and open for learning and self-improvement.

  26. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.

    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more
    of your magnificent post. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

  27. Hi “Discopants”
    I like your take on things re our beautiful rainbow nation. You have spotted the problem. You are willing to learn. You respect other peoples space even if you don’t realy understand.
    Correct me if I’m wrong but I have a feeling you would like to do your bit ” fixing” the problems of our country, granted we can’t fix anyone and everyone but we can do our bit which is the part that concerns you the most. If this is correct I would like to have a chat with you and share views. Like Mr Mandela and Mr deKlerk did. (And No… I won’t ask for a donation or anything like that :-)

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