Maid in South Africa
When I was growing up in South Africa in the 1980s it was impossible to imagine that any household could make do without a housekeeper. Even a modest three-bedroom bungalow in a lower middle class suburb would need servant’s quarters.
Servants were witness to the most intimate details of white households from marriages, infidelities, divorces, sickness and deaths as well as the minor events such as school activities, first boyfriends and girlfriends; all the things which give shape and narrative to an ordinary family’s existence. Whether or not the relationship between a housekeeper and the family was good, the very nature of the situation meant that it was invariably intimate. Sometimes the relationships were close, though they were usually strange and sad. I attended a wedding at which the housekeeper and the gardener of the bride’s parents stood at the back of the church for the ceremony and afterwards were given a cooler box with sodas, beer and sandwiches to enjoy in the park while the white guests attended the reception at a hotel. It was not simply a question of the white guests excluding the black guests; the housekeeper and the gardener would have been deeply uncomfortable at the reception. But the housekeeper, it is worth noting, was part mother to the bride during her childhood and confidant to the bride’s mother during her divorce.
In other countries we tend to think of the relationship between employer and servant in terms of class, but in South Africa the social system was engineered such that class coincided with race. This difference both enabled the intimacy and created sufficient ‘cultural space’ to make the relationship between employer and servant in a modest home possible. A white woman would be less concerned about her black servant knowing intimate details about her life than someone from her own community. When a black maid became a surrogate parent to a white child, the situation was less threatening to the parents precisely because the surrogate was black. Equally the indignity of serving an average middle class family, in particular the children, was mitigated by the fact that it was not in your community. Maids could speak to one-another in a language we did not understand and return to communities we would not know or visit. Moreover it was easy to distance ourselves from what we were doing because of apartheid, irrespective of what one’s political convictions may have been. You, the servant, find yourself in the position you are in, because you are black, and you may unite with your brothers and sisters of our kitchens and backyards against the injustice and indignity of the situation, but it is an external and seemingly immutable force configuring these relationships. Apartheid meant that even in the same room there was enough separateness, to make the situation tolerable.
I am curious as to the relationships that exist between black families and their housekeepers in South Africa today. Not only will these relationships not have the same degree of ‘cultural space’ in terms of language and background but there must be precious few black South Africans who don’t have a family member that at one time or another found themselves in the employ of a white household. Most black South Africans will at the very least have strong connections to townships and rural communities where this servant class are from. If the relationship between employer and servant is slowly being transformed from one of race to one of class, which implies a space (also to some extent ideological in nature given the ANC’s embrace of an uncompromising capitalism) it can never in any way resemble the ‘separateness’ that existed before. For me a comparable situation would be to grow up with an older Afrikaans woman as a housekeeper, and whatever it may say about the effect South Africa had on me, I find the idea almost impossible to contemplate; the shared culture would not allow sufficient distance to make the enforced intimacy possible.
Our housekeeper worked for my family for twenty years before retiring after I left for university. With Janice* seeing to the everyday household chores my mother was able to complete her PhD while we attended primary school. South Africa was so deeply patriarchal, that even in a supposedly liberal family like ours, there was no question of my father preparing meals or cleaning the house. As uncomfortable as the relationship makes us, employing a housekeeper had a significant impact on my mother’s life. But these relationships also brought benefits to the servant. Not only was the income important in supporting extended families, employment often meant hand-me-down school books, bags and uniforms, emergency loans and on rare occasions the presence of a white employer who might intercede with bureaucrats or police or the other machinery of government that seemed to whir dangerously beneath one, if you were part of the large black underclass.
To a lesser extent this is still true today although the nature of domestic employment is gradually being transformed through legislation. I believe that the practice of engaging domestic servants is wrong. The closeness between servants and white children often came about because maids were, and still are, separated from their children for extended periods – the children of the employer were surrogates too. These relationships, however loving and close, are borne of an unnecessary and sometimes damaging separation that cannot be justified by what is, after all, just laziness. Janice left school at fourteen and began employment the following year. She confided that as a child she had hopes of becoming a nurse. These were not the sorts of confessions we liked to dwell upon. After all, who wants to be made complicit in unfulfilled dreams and wasted potential? However if I lived in South Africa today, and I had the means, I would probably still employ a housekeeper, and not only because I am lazy. In a country with high unemployment, low levels of education and a grossly uneven distribution of wealth, you’d have to be a very high minded and cold person not to provide an unskilled job if you could. The challenge is to ensure that the practise does not become so entrenched that out of apartheid arises a class system so rigid and intractable that it resembles what preceded it. For this is unlikely to stir the sympathy of the world and will be much harder to overcome.
* Name has been changed