Our new house came with a cleaner/maid/whatever you want to call them. It’s marvellous because I HATE cleaning and now I don’t have to do it. This unpleasant task is delegated to someone who is being paid to do it, and I can go on not doing my dishes. Her name is Hazel and she is quite nice and we have long chats about her kids and Cape Town … and today, about the dynamics of working as essentially a servant for white people. It came about when I offered her a cup of coffee yesterday – I had just woken up and she was in the kitchen, and it is my belief that no one should start a morning without this delicious and wholesome beverage. I was being polite and it was really not a problem to make an extra cup. Then I noticed that she was teary.
This morning she seemed a lot happier and accepted my offer of a cup of coffee , apologizing for being upset yesterday. She explained that 2 girls who had left this house a few days ago had left her a Thank-You letter and flowers. By the time she received the note, it had been opened by our landlords. They also harshly questioned her about WHY she had been left a letter and flowers.
I realized that accepting a cup of coffee from me came with intricate social details that I never really think about.
I went to the Apartheid Museum in Joburg a few weeks ago. They set up the space chronologically very well – the darker rooms were during the 1970′s and 1980′s gradually emerging into windowed displays of Mandela and the end of apartheid. I left feeling uplifted and hopeful, with the museum’s slogan – Apartheid is just where it belongs, in a museum – ringing in my ears. But then I remembered the exhibit on “Life Under Apartheid.” It contained photo after photo of the racial divide, including a section on black servants in white homes.
Fourteen years after Mandela was elected, that particular part of “Life Under Apartheid” ISN’T only in a museum. It still very much exists, as does the master-servant mentality.
Having servants in the States is so different from having servants here. For starters, it is incredibly gauche to use the word “servant” at all. The older generation likes to project an almost altruistic motive on the people who nanny their children and clean their house, and say things about their maids like “Oh, she helps me so much with the house work!” The younger generation tends to affect friendship with the servants, having small talks with them, saying “hello” and “thank you.” My guess is that this occurs because in a supposedly egalitarian society such as the United States, where equality is not only in vogue but in the Constitution, we can’t bear the thought of a master-servant relationship.
I think that’s as it should be – to be a maid or a nanny is a job, a career, and should be treated as such by all parties. Here, however, the domestic workers are all black or coloured and the people employing them are all white, and the employers seem regard them with slight suspicion at best and airs of ownership towards the servants at worst.
For the girls to leave Hazel flowers and for me to whip up another cup of coffee is an American cultural sentiment – guilt over having a relationship that lends itself to inequality, perhaps; and just general friendliness. I don’t know that that is understood here. Hazel says that the landlords question her when she seems to close to the tenents – asking her “What did you say to them!?” and “What do you want from them?!”
I wonder if within certain demographics in South Africa, servants should be “seen and not heard.” Or, perhaps, anyone who is not white should be seen and not heard? Or, after apartheid, maybe the idea is that people who are not white must be at least seen, in the name of equality, in white areas. But to hear someone is to grant that person an equal status as the hearer … is South Africa ready for that?