Maid in South Africa

2011-05-21 00:00

A SOUTH African pilot from London recently wrote to a South African newspaper that “since packing up my family boots and all and moving to London I find myself getting up while it’s still dark and putting in long hours every day to fly royalty and the super rich all over the place with chartered flights that make them feel even more like royalty.

“And that is happening even as my family are packed like sardines into a two-bedroom flat.

“In South Africa, on the other hand, my family and I lived like the people I now serve: a spacious home, a large, luxuriant garden and at least one domestic.

“That is why my family and I are moving back home, because in South Africa we live like nobility. That is how things are here with us.”

This version of the South African way of life is not all that different from what the British tabloids used to write about Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Chelsy Davy of Zimbabwe.

Granted, she has no title and is from a former colony, but the royal family fits her like a glove, because where she comes from she is waited on hand and foot.

Years ago Jacklyn Cock wrote in Maids and Madams, her pioneering book on domestic workers and their employers in the Eastern Cape, that housework is an institution that forms an integral part of the South African way of life — as it has done for many generations.

Exactly how long becomes clear when Hermann Giliomee describes the relationship between female slaves and female slave owners as the longest-lasting form of paternalism in South Africa’s history.

In a concrete way the institution of housework has been literally cemented­ into the social order.

The domestic helper’s quarters and outside toilet used to be part of the standard design in the suburbs. In wealthy residential areas flats had two doors so that the “personnel” did not have to use the front door, a custom that was brought to our shores from abroad and acquired a new meaning here.

In dialogue with the architecture of urban design in New York, Paris and Brazil, South Africa’s urban metropoles carry the stamp of an authentically South African approach to design: the resourceful ways in which architects incorporated domestic workers’ quarters in their designs without neglecting aesthetics, offending whites because of the close proximity of black people, and contravening local racial legislation.

Geographer Keith Beavon, who has written a fantastic history of Johannesburg­’s development, refers to these design formations as “locations in the air”.

They can still be seen today — interesting geometric constructions on top of buildings, characterised by small windows along the top, so that no one could guess what was happening there.

But the institution of housework has a dual underpinning. Put differently, the institution of housework is not only a short cut to explaining, as the London pilot has done, how things are here (that is, what the lifestyle looks like), but also how things are among our people (that is, what the moral order looks like).

Philosopher Charles Taylor explains that we use images, stories and legends to give expression to how things are among people, and to verbalise our expectations of one another (and the extent to which such expectations are met, or not met).

The institution of paid housework — with the associated intimacy within the family circle and the well-known key figures of the female employer and the domestic — are particularly suitable for accommodating such a concept.

In the crude street lingo of common discourse, “madam and maid” is one of those word pairs and images that eloquently sum up apartheid and colonialism as social orders.

That is exactly how things used to be.

But — and this is the crux of the matter — because paid housework as a practice is associated with both the apartheid and the post-apartheid orders, the image contained within remains contemporary.

That is exactly how things still are. This makes housework both a symbolically loaded and a contaminated practice.

The kind of lifestyle that South Africa offers its middle class cannot be reduced to the moral bankruptcy of white South Africa.

South African middle-class homes are designed and organised against the backdrop of easily available cheap black labour.

The lifestyle therefore requires the institution of housework.

That is precisely why the growing black middle-class is increasingly finding ways to incorporate the use of paid housework by adapting existing housework repertoires and taking over key aspects of the old way of doing things.

The back rooms are not remaining empty.

At the same time housework has not been automatically stripped of the apartheid baggage just because it now involves a contractual working relationship regulated by the state and there are now both white and black employers (and domestic workers).

There used to be a race tag attached to housework, after all, something that drew on the British class system, rural paternalism and the urban apartheid racial order.

The transition from the old order to the new did not automatically change that old set of rules — it is something which people have to become aware of, and must want to change, themselves.

Is the domestic worker allowed to use the cutlery, or does she still have her own set? May the domestic worker use the inside toilet? Should the domestic worker cover her head? May she receive visitors at the front door — or at all? What about forms of address?

“Sir” and “Madam” (or “Baa s” and “Miesies”) are still heard from time to time.

White French citizens born in Algeria before its independence from France were called pieds-noirs — blackfeet.

While various explanations exist for the origin of the term it carries traces of contamination that is associated with this group and the condescending attitude with which white French people from the mother country viewed their blackfoot counterparts.

On one hand the source of the contamination is the idea of Africa as the dark continent.

But it also alludes to the racist idea that contact with black people rubs off on whites coming into close contact with them.

The term also alludes to the moral contamination associated with the French Algerians because of their role in, and exploitation of, black Algerians in French Algeria.

Stereotypes don’t have to be consistent.

For a long time to come, from both inside and outside South Africa (and perhaps specifically from the north), paid housework will probably be seen as debris from the past which contaminates South Africans that share in it.

It will be seen as a practice that encapsulates the essence of apartheid.

Seen this way it is, therefore, the domain of the (now black and white) blackfoot royals claiming the right to a lifestyle and practice to which only the true blue-blooded nobility are entitled; and also, on the other hand, the base of white racism and race-based social inequality.

But to focus on the powerful symbolism at the expense of the practice is to cast the symbolic in stone.

Social customs come and go and change.

Consensus on a moral order is something that is reached over a long period.

How it takes place has to do with power and resistance as well as with ideas that are exchanged so that a particular practice now belongs in the past or is thoroughly reformed.

As Jonathan Grossmann reminds us, housework is indeed socially useful work, and should, therefore, be rated more highly and remunerated accordingly. It requires thorough-going reform.

In many places paid housework continues as before, but is also becoming the object of reform and penance — with far-reaching consequences.

New social practices are arising in the area of paid housework — outside rooms are being converted; au pairs and butlers are replacing servants in a new system of class distinction; cleaning services are being contracted; immigrants are being appointed instead of South Africans to retain the old paternalism; double households comprising the families of both employer and employee are coming into existence.

All of this to try to separate the two aspects of the significance of paid housework — as symbolism and practice — to see whether we can create both a moral order and retain something of the lifestyle and possibilities.

That is how things are.

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