Tea girls of the world unite!

2011-05-28 10:25

At an early age, I ran into the reality that we are all tea girls. As a young girl, while happily playing with my boy cousins, a family member called out to me: “Come, come, you’ve got to make the tea.”

I looked behind me, convinced that she meant somebody else. I wasn’t a tea girl. And, besides, I was busy. I told her so. And that’s when the induction came.

She said it was the role of women to learn to set a tray, make tea and serve it.

I complained that my cousins who were the same age should help, but no, she said, it was a girl’s job. I huffed and puffed, filled with an early feminist indignation that this didn’t feel right.

It was before I could spell patriarchy. Today, I make a perfect cup of tea.

English tea, chai tea, green tea, mint tea – for any tea, I’m your woman. Not too much milk, warm the pot, fresh brown sugar. Pick mint from your own herb garden for the best green tea. Add elachi (cardamom) and lemon grass for wicked winter tea.

At some point, it clicked that my line was not viciously patriarchal as some can be, and so I settled into some gendered roles as most South African women I know do.

We all eat together (in many communities men still eat before women) and my brother is the best and speediest dishwasher there is.

Luckily, we don’t come from the clan where the women put toothpaste on their husbands’ toothbrushes.

There’s an aunt in my extended family who never made the jump. She is resolutely feminist (I’m sure she doesn’t shave under her arms, still) and garners the dirtiest of looks from female family members who regard her not as a feminist, but simply lazy.

Making tea and cooking are rituals to love – deeply creative and nurturing. No culinary artist like my mom and aunts (rolling roti still evades me), I see these now as arts passed down a line – a circle of sisterhood that should not be eschewed.

It is freedom to choose which roles to accept and which to abandon.

It’s part of freedom to be able to edit (never a suitable task for a woman under apartheid) and still be a tea girl. Freedom comes with options.

So, being called a tea girl is no insult. It is one of those terms to appropriate and empower like “girl”, “woman”, “bitch”, “prostitute”, “iron lady”.

It’s part of the patriarch’s arson but, through the feminist ages, women have appropriated their language to take ownership and subvert the stereotype.

Besides, with more than a million domestic workers in South Africa, there are more of us tea girls than there are ANC Youth League members (which stands at about 600 000, according to the league’s spokesperson Floyd Shivambu).

The DA’s spokesperson, Lindiwe Mazibuko, who was labelled a tea girl last week by the league’s president Julius Malema, didn’t take umbrage.

Poor woman. She’s been called “darkie”, “tea girl” and “stooge” – a reflection of misogyny in the ANC that should be stamped out by the Women’s League.

All the insults hurled at the opposition by the ruling party have been viciously sexist: DA leader Helen Zille has been called both “monkey” and “madam”, though I don’t recall its previous leader Tony Leon derided as “master”.

What’s happening in the ANC, I wonder? It failed to muster a single woman as metro mayor, even though Women’s League president Angie Motshekga attempted and lost a final battle to do so this week.

It felt like it was too little too late for the women’s caucus, which I don’t believe will achieve the equal representation of women it is looking for.

It seems it’s every man for himself in the ruling party these days, as comrades have disregarded gender-equality injunctions from Luthuli House.

But does it matter?

If you consider the heartless approach of the Moqhaka municipality’s mayor to the news of the open toilets in her Free State ward, she does not bring to the job any deeper sense of dignity or gender.

There are scores of other examples – women who are unconscious of their role to fight for a more equal society. It appears the mayor was in it for the bucks and owned businesses on the side too.

The politics of greed has meant that the access to resources, which office now comes with, ensures the principles once ingrained in society by the governing party are being abandoned for short-term goals.

While it is whispered that Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu may one day be a presidential candidate, she is not emerging from the party’s women’s movement that was once the incubator of leadership. Now she is only named as such by men who need a candidate they can push through on the gender ticket.

Malema’s misogyny is repeated ad nauseum – he is a symbol of a new generation of young cadres of the ANC who are not schooled in its progressive policies on gender.

When he refused to debate with Mazibuko, it felt as if he is only comfortable with women in their gendered roles as nurturers or as those for whom the man is the provider.

So, while he is by legend a loving grandson, father, and Chomee’s dance partner, this is not extended to women whom he regards as adversaries or who might be equals.

Remember, this is the same man who insulted Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor’s “fake” accent; and the same man whose lieutenant, Shivambu, is accused of calling women journalists “whores”, “bitches” and “drunks”.

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