The Trouble with Maids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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