Can’t live with them, can’t live without them

2008-04-12 00:00

After a long day at work, madam walks in to find her helper watching TV. She sighs and says: “Yhu, a nice cup of tea would be lovely.” Her helper, from the comfort of her madam’s couch, replies: “Sisi, you can make two, I’d like a cup as well.”

For years domestic workers have suffered all sorts of unspeakable abuse from their employers. But little is written about the madam’s affliction at the hands of these helpers.

After all, not everyone who hires a char, aunty, ousie or nanny (call them what you will, as long as it’s not the politically incorrect “maid”) is an Ubuntuless, underpaying, I’m-not-going-to-wash-my-own-underwear tyrant.

Domestic work is often undervalued, not only by some madams but often by the domestic workers themselves — perhaps rightfully so because of the working conditions they have endured. This type of work is no calling; it is something you do if you are unlucky or lazy in life.

However, South Africa has its share of decent people who are nothing but caring and fair to the people they hire to manage their homes.

At the best of times, your helper can be your extra pair of limbs, your Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka or your wing woman.

At the worst of times … well let’s just say things can get pretty dismal. There are many employers who are being terrorised by their domestic in their four rooms, town houses and double-storey Tuscan villas.

Getting the right person is almost as difficult as getting a good man. Those in the know will advise you only to take into service a char of a certain age, from a specific place, with certain referrals or credentials.

But you will soon find out that whether you hire a perfect stranger or a relative, someone young or old, they’ll still want to be the boss of you.

It won’t matter that you hired her off a street corner (where she tragically advertised her availability on the back of an Omo cardboard box) or she was dropped off by a branded Corsa bakkie with Majestic Maids written on the side, she will be no Martha Stewart and you’ll have to train her to do basics, like wash the dishes.

And, for whatever bizarre reason, she will always think you’re rich. Therefore, she won’t be slightly interested in working with you to save electricity or water. She will use all cleaning products wastefully, especially your real McCoy Sunlight dish-washing liquid, as if they were handed out for free at the local clinic.

Whether she is a churchgoing somebody or not, she might have the tendency to borrow stuff without asking, just because you are not really using it.

If you have children, they will soon learn to kiss (having been exposed to reruns of Passions) or strangle each other, copying tackles from the Undertaker on World Wrestling Entertainment, even though you’ve specifically asked her not to allow the children to watch these programmes.

And even though you are the person who is paying her salary, she’ll refuse to wash your clothes, preferring to do your husband’s and children’s laundry because “she is not going to wash for another woman”.

Firing her will seem like the worst thing because she would have effectively used her victim mentality to manipulate you. It is never easy firing a breadwinner.

Since South Africa is on a crusade to attract engineers and other professionals from foreign countries, I suggest we lobby the government to add domestic workers to its skills shortage list. Maybe we can look to President Robert Mugabe’s country.

• Sbu Mpungose is the former editor of Move! magazine who has decided to become a stay-at-home mother and freelance journalist.

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