Maids And Madams

new internationalist
issue 239 - January 1993

Illustration by JOSEF HERMAN RA
Illustration: JOSEF HERMAN RA

Maids and madams
'How can our children dream of things they never see us do?'
asks Sindiwe Magona. African women suffer in unexpected
ways from the malady at the heart of work in South Africa.

I want to be a millionaire when I grow up!' pipes the innocent voice of a child at the beginning of an anti-drugs commercial. In my mind the voice paints a picture of a confident white child, a child who would dare to have a dream like this so young.

An African child - certainly not in South Africa - would hardly dare to say such a thing. Most African children in this country have no such dreams. We can only dream of what we know, what is within our world. Dreams, like hallucinations, are culture-bound. And for millions of South Africa's children words like engineer, dentist, doctor, lawyer, judge, train driver, pilot, sea captain, banker, president, prime minister, university chancellor, mining magnate - or magnate of any kind, for that matter - and a host of others are just not the stuff that dreams are made of.

African adults, the children's role models, are the sweaty faces, the calloused hands, the chipped fingernails that spend long hours doing menial and tedious jobs in dangerous conditions for pay in peanuts. I am not saying this is work no-one should do. But there is a basic wrong - a sinfulness even - in conditioning an entire nation to slavish work, so its children never see adults who look like they're doing anything that commands respect, let alone inspiration. How can our children dream of things they never see us do - ever?

And that's just the bad news. Worse are the 'hope-against-hope' clusters of people: men huddling in groups all along the roads outside African townships, standing there from early morn until way after sunset, standing there in the vain hope that someone somewhere will need an extra pair of hands. Day in, day out these men stand there, each keeping his own appointment with disappointment.

On a good day a man makes little more than the price of enough food to eat. Such a day might begin at seven or eight in the morning and not end before nine at night, with no breaks: a day of hard work, lifting bag after bag of cement, mixing it, carrying it to a building site. One man in a group I talked to told me he wished he could get himself arrested and gaoled for a while: 'At least then I would eat some food, however bad,' he said.

These are the men our boys see. Almost all the women our girls know are domestic servants. Outside their own homes, the vast majority of African women work in other women s homes: cooking, cleaning, nannying children, doing the washing, ironing, taking children to school, fetching children from school, going to the shop, the dry cleaners, the butcher, the dairy, the shoemaker, the tailor, the bank and the florist. And these women count themselves lucky. Unemployment in South Africa is high - and women are often the sole breadwinners.

Few would envy the lot of the domestic servant. It is a world of exploitation, unrelieved monotony, full of drudgery, with scant security. Despite all the talk of change, on a recent visit back home I found little evidence of it. For a significant number their status has actually declined - the very things heralded as signs of improvement have left them in a weakened position.

When one talks of maids and madams in South Africa one immediately imagines a black maid and a white madam. Well, that's a stereotype that is fast crumbling. Hold on! I'm not suggesting that white women have sunk so low as to work in the homes of black women! Wouldn't that be a switch?

But as some African women ascend into the professions and juggle busy schedules they are beginning to employ domestic servants. I am sorry to say that, on the whole, maids are faring worse under black madams than white ones. There are plenty of good reasons for this. The black madam, herself discriminated against and undervalued at her workplace, usually does not command a salary on a par with that most-favoured worker in South Africa, the white man. The high rate of divorce means that in more cases than not the black madam is a single parent. Misdirected traditional practices mean the employer often adopts a paternalistic stance.

Sometimes there is payment in kind instead of hard cash. The madam buys, say, groceries in bulk for the maid's family in the village, or clothes and books for the maid's children and - sometimes - helps with medical expenses. These may be benefits, but they do not excuse the basic injustice of taking the maid's services and underpaying her for them in kind that is not of her own choosing.

Sad to say, too, low wages are not the only evil domestic servants suffer under black madams. They can work ridiculously long hours without even the afternoon rest that is customary in white homes. Cook, nanny, kindergarten teacher, laundry woman and cleaner, the maid also serves as confidante or psychologist if madam's love-life goes awry. And the busier madam's social life the more responsibilities come the maid's way, with no financial compensation.

For a long time I saw very little evidence of the black middle class everyone was talking about. The yawning gap between the lifestyles of maid and madam tells me that we must have arrived: that, unfortunately, we African women - who have known all manner of oppression and exploitation, from others and from our very own - we also know how to demean, dehumanize and denigrate. And if the white woman is not careful she'll find that we can do this much, much better that she has ever done, if we have not surpassed her already.

Rough stuff? How many maids would tolerate a white madam who addressed her as 'you fool' as a matter of course? Or work for the same family for 30 years without a wage rise, with no fixed holiday and no fixed pay day?

As in other arenas of South African life there is growing evidence of the effects of the march of time. A few white madams are exploring different ways of dealing with the women in their employ. Some are encouraging the maid to take up education or training classes; taking out unemployment insurance; improving their houses under a new scheme now in place in black residential areas. The houses may not be palaces, but the improvements spell a tremendous difference in the quality of life of the maid and her family.

Yes, all these measures are paternalistic practices. But I don't know that the maid who benefits from them is complaining. People die waiting for the ideal of a fair wage for fair work. Most people welcome relief whatever coat it comes wearing. In such circumstances a maid may actually be doing much better than many professionals. But there's no chance of this getting out of hand - of the whole race of white madams losing its collective head.

Faces that are not white are beginning to appear, as they should have done long ago, reading the news on TV in English or Afrikaans with accents that are not white. What a relief! Even so we are still talking about the proverbial drop in the ocean. We're not flying aeroplanes yet, nor driving trains and buses for that matter.

But in the Transkei I met several African women driving kombis - the preferred vehicle for public transport and taxis - and many of these women owned the taxis themselves. All along South Africa's national highways there are the most gorgeous floral displays. Tending them are women in the bright orange garb of work gangs. They beautify the country's roads and make driving more pleasurable.

In education African women dominate numerically, but there are embarrassingly few in the higher echelons. The first women school inspectors, principals of high schools and counsellors are beginning to emerge. A tiny number overall, but a first tottering step... and about time too.

We are to be seen in hotels and restaurants going through the doors as customers, people to be served as well as servants. Our arrival causes confusion: it throws everybody out of gear; the eyes of black staff pop in sheer disbelief. We have learnt the lessons of our masters only too well. Both sides - black client and black labour - are extremely uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed by these new roles. However, once the situation has righted itself, after the initial awkwardness, we all remember our lines.

'Table for four, please,' we say, trying not to look insulted by being ignored, by not being seen as the new South Africa's Africans - unfettered, upward-bound, sophisticated, reaping the rewards that come from being educated and therefore having a position.

But until such time as all adults in South Africa can remedy the malady at its heart Africans will remain handicapped and exploited - and workers of the future will be stunted, too, by the sight of so much hopelessness among the adults of their world.

Sindiwe Magona is a South African writer and broadcaster who currently lives in New York.

Her two latest books - the second part of her autobiography, Forced to Grow, and a collection of short stories Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night - were both published by the Women's Press, London, in October 1992.

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