Straight-talking Lerato Tshabala: Let’s call a maid a maid…


Writer and editor Lerato has caused quite a stir with her new book, The Way  See It: Musings of a Black Woman in the Rainbow Nation.

In this extract she tackles the domestic worker issue. And as with everything in her book, it comes with a warning: guaranteed to offend!


Is Mavis a housekeeper?

No, she’s a domestic worker. Actually, she’s a helper,

but certainly not a maid!

So let’s talk frankly about why ‘maid’ has become a swear word in the South African vocabulary. Black people, brace yourselves for impact. According to the dictionary, a maid is defined as a female domestic servant. Depending on where you are in the world, maids can look different.

In America, for instance, generally this will be a lady from, say, Mexico (Donald Trump and Kelly Osbourne would agree here, even though this is a gross and unjust generalisation); in France, this person could be from Eastern Europe and, in Africa, this could be a woman from, say, Diepsloot (or Grassy Park, depending on where you live).

Nowhere in the dictionary does the word ‘maid’ refer to a race of people. But the way I see it, about ten years into our democracy, black South Africans who had begun climbing the social and financial ladders started feeling guilty about having ‘maids’. (Yes, white people, you’re no longer the only ones suffering from middle-class guilt.)

The extent of our middle-class guilt as black people is so deep that many of us would rather spend hours sitting idly at Exclusive Books than be in the house when the cleaning lady is there. We find it too embarrassing to be lounging around while they work.

‘It’s like watching my aunt clean and I’m not helping. It makes me feel sooo bad,’ we tell our friends.

Only the truly emancipated among us will simply lift our feet and let the housekeeper clean around us while we lounge about watching daytime television. If you’re like me, however, then you try to prove that you were raised well and you do this by tidying up just before your housekeeper comes.

It’s only recently that I realised how dumb it is for me to employ someone to clean my house but feel so guilty that my house is dirty that I tidy up. What’s the point? But that’s black middle-class guilt for you – it makes us want to cling onto anything that makes us feel more ‘black’, no matter how illogical.

I can tell you that many black people in this country – especially those who feel they are slowly losing their mother tongue and customs – are holding onto anything that makes them feel less awkward about the fact that they’re now walking their dogs at Zoo Lake on Saturday afternoons or sipping wine in Stellenbosch on holidays.

You see, back in the day when the working class headed to the suburbs to work (before the Rainbow Nation con – but more on that later), people in the townships, particularly in Soweto, called the suburbs emakhishini. The literal translation is ‘kitchens’, but in the figurative sense it was an allusion to the fact that the kitchens in the suburbs were so big that they were the equivalent of a house in the township.

This was fine when it was an obvious ‘us-against-them’ situation. But then the Sibekos, Mokoenas and Khumalos moved into Parkhurst and Waterkloof and other nice, leafy suburbs in SA, and suddenly the ‘us’ referred to a class of people instead of a race group.

The idea that we were the same as the Weinsteins and Van der Merwes freaked us out. When you’re enjoying the same lifestyle as the people who once oppressed your people, it doesn’t feel so lekker.

Black people envy but often struggle with affluence. It’s like having champagne and caviar with a one-legged, blind beggar standing next to you asking for money. Because of the trauma caused by the systematic degradation of our people, which basically stripped us of our humanity, it is hard for some black people to now admit to being upper class.

This is why we shy away from speaking about money or acknowledging that we even have it. I’ll say this much: apart from a few black folks who suffer from an acute case of nouveau riche, we are not comfortable with wealth and affluence. I have friends I’ve known for years whose houses I’ve never visited because they’re worried that people will see exactly how privileged they are.

Whether you’re a business owner who was raised by the white family who employed your mother or you’re a secretary whose mom cleaned houses to put you through school, the reality of being raised by someone who sweated and most likely got ridiculed so you could get an education is a real thing to most black people in this country. I reckon this is why we had to find a word that was more palatable to us. It’s better to say someone is ‘helping’ you clean and maintain your house than calling them a maid.

If we trace our family histories, I’m willing to bet that we all have at least one family member who cleaned houses or worked emakhishini. (That is if it’s not a reality right now.) It’s a sore point for us.

I understand why we are sensitive to labelling – when you are labelled and called derogatory names by other races for centuries, you become acutely aware of what a word can do to the psyche of a human being.

A single word can define the way people look at themselves. A word – used effectively – can make the proudest man slouch with defeat or ball up his fist to throw a right hook.

From America to South Africa, black people have always had to deal with some kind of racial slur being thrown at them. So I get it: we’re sensitive about labels. Yet I know I’m going to upset my people by proposing that we stop owning words that have nothing to do with our quality as human beings. Let me say it plainly: black people need to stop giving so much power to words that don’t relate to them. I’ll give you an example: when a man greets me and I don’t answer back and he then calls me a bitch, I keep moving, because 1) I know I’m not a bitch; 2) he doesn’t know me.

People will continue to name-call until we switch the frequency. Without an audience, even the biggest bullies lose interest in their victims; it’s hard to fight with someone who’s not interested.

When an estate agent from KZN named Penny Sparrow decided to start 2016 by calling black people monkeys on Facebook, I posted her incredibly offensive remarks on Instagram. Yet a few of my followers were completely unbothered. They said that because they don’t see themselves that way, what she said didn’t affect them. Although I was incensed by Sparrow’s comments, I understood their point.

That’s not to say people like Penny Sparrow should be allowed to spew their mindless drivel freely, of course. It’s more about understanding that people like her are intellectually bankrupt – they can’t help themselves. All non-racist people should correct them, yes, but as black people we should rather focus our energy on gaining economic equality. Racism can be a distraction from what truly needs to be done.

We need to look at racist people the same way in which we regard stupid people. If you’ve ever encountered a truly stupid person, in the true sense of ignorance, you never take anything they say seriously; you’re always half listening and can be facetious without them even getting it.

Racists are stupid. That is a fact. Rejecting labels and derogatory terms is taking back our power. But I’m proposing too much too soon, right? Forgive me. I guess it’s easier to find a less emotionally explosive word for something already so incredibly awkward for you – being a ‘madam’.

I’ll say it again: I understand. I guess this is one of the reasons black people are opposed to having their helpers wear uniforms – we think it’s degrading. We didn’t ask anyone else what they thought, particularly not the helpers themselves – our guilt was enough of an assertion.

Let’s face it, white people didn’t have issues calling their domestic workers ‘maids’ until we told them it was wrong. And because some of them – obviously not the evolved folks in Orania – wanted to show us that they feel really, really bad about ‘what happened’, they joined us.

‘Maid’, much like ‘garden boy’ – undoubtedly one of the most distasteful, racist references in this country – was a term used freely pre-1994. It’s clear to me that once we as black people had dealt with our own feelings of guilt and shame around our affluence, all we had to do was guilt-trip the white liberals – who probably wanted to show Madiba and the rest of the world that they wanted to be a part of the Rainbow Nation – into not using ‘maid’.

But the truth is, ‘maid’ is a word that describes what someone does – it’s not derogatory in and of itself. In fact, one of the things I love about going to Cape Town is how some white people there don’t give a fuck about being politically correct. A maid is a maid is a maid over there. Helper for what? For whom?

White South Africans who live in Cape Town fascinate me. I’m

not talking about the Joburgers who’ve moved there for work or love, I’m talking about people who went to Rondebosch Boys High and spent weekends in flea markets in Muizenberg – people who really call that city home. They are not easily guilt-tripped like the wimpy white people in Joburg.

You see, in Joburg, the middle and upper class is mostly divided by things, not necessarily by race: SUVs vs. sedans, holidays in Durban vs. vacationing in Italy. Joburg was built on money, and that’s what drives this great African metropolis – cash. White money is just as good as black money in my city. Back in the 1800s, it was diamonds and gold, now it is tenders and acquisitions; either way, in Joburg it’s about how deep your pockets are. You may be white, you may be coloured, but if your pockets are deep, then Jozi will roll out the red carpet for you and scatter roses as you walk to your table.

In Cape Town, things are a little different. Race is a stronger currency there. Oh, please, don’t be sensitive, you know I’m right – go to any restaurant right now in Camps Bay and check how many black people are dining there. If there’s more than five, I’m willing to bet they’re from Joburg.

No really, try me. (I won’t go into the mechanics of why black Capetonians don’t enjoy their city the way their white counterparts do; there aren’t enough pages in this book for that.)

In the Mother City you can say ‘maid’ without being side-eyed. In Joburg, however, your Westcliff neighbour, who drives the same Discovery Land Rover as you and drops off their child at Red Hill, will shoot you an icy-cold look should you mention you have a ‘maid’.

In fact, I’ve seen white people in Joburg be visibly appalled when a black person calls their housekeeper by that word.

I love the fact that we’re sensitive to each other’s feelings and that we’re using our guilt to make us more cognisant of how we treat each other.

However, I’m wary of too much sensitivity. It can be false. What I’m about to say might have me stripped of my black membership, but truly, I see nothing wrong with calling the woman who cleans my house a maid. Admittedly, I’m too chickenshit to call her that myself, but I certainly won’t judge you if you do.

Now I know that many of my white friends feel that they are lost in translation with their housekeepers because of the obvious language barrier. But I’m here to tell you that sometimes even black people don’t understand their housekeepers.

So many times I’ve switched to Zulu in an effort to put my point across clearly, only to be met by a blank stare. I’m starting to suspect that perhaps our ‘helpers’ do this deliberately in order to make themselves appear less intelligent, therefore making us feel elitist for talking down at them.

Yet language is not the only problem we face in this complicated relationship. I’m amazed at how my housekeeper can work for me for years and every time she cleans my house, she arranges the ornaments and cushions the way she wants to.

Never mind that every single time I come home, I change everything back to the way it was before. Oh no, week after week, she changes and moves things according to her mood. It’s as if she’s trying to tell me that I’m doing it wrong.

We also can’t forget those housekeepers who like our stuff so much, they have to steal it. One woman who worked for me stole my boyfriend’s cologne. When he noticed it was missing, he told me and I immediately called to ask my housekeeper where it was.

She said the bottle broke while she was cleaning, and yet there was not a single whiff of Gucci Guilty in the air. I had to promptly let her ass go. My friend Damon had been keeping some precious bottles of Scotch that his mom had given him before she died. Less than six months later, his housekeeper had polished off more than half the bottles. He had not had a single sip. Maybe there’s an assumption that we won’t miss certain things because we have ‘too’ much, but you never know what something means to someone.

Living in South Africa has made me vigilant, because at first it’s a perfume and the next thing you know your entire house is being ransacked. No thanks. I’d rather deal with a dirty house for a couple of weeks than an empty one. My ultimate, though, are those housekeepers who have what Americans call ‘sass’, as in, they talk back, or freely dish out personal comments. You come home with a tub of ice cream and she’s looking at you judgingly: ‘Ice cream! Tjo! No wonder your jeans don’t fit anymore!’

It’s at those times that many of us are tempted to remind the person that they’re the help. I’ve realised that when it comes to people who work for you – be it in an office or at your house – maintaining a polite distance is wise. If you choose to be friends, trust me, you will find yourself being interrogated about your vibrator or porn stash. Heed my advice.

But no matter how elitist and rude we may be about our helpers, there is one time of the year that humbles us all and reminds us why we need these women. These women who’ve carried future world leaders on their backs while their own children suffered nights without them. These women who allow us working executives to be at PTA meetings because they are at home, making sure our children are clean and tucked into bed – these women are not just housekeepers, they are superheroes. No time of year reminds us of that more than the festive season – when they leave the four walls of their tiny cottages to go be with their children and families for a precious two or three weeks.

During that time, us middle-class kugels are left to fend for ourselves. Oh, the horror! You laugh, but if you haven’t done your own washing, ironing or cleaning in years (if ever) and you’re faced with doing it yourself, it can really break your spirit. Especially in December, when we’re all feeling rich and festive, inviting people over for braais, and buying everything from the latest iPad to a flat-screen TV. By the time January 2nd comes around, the boxes from our December purchases have gathered around the bin like a congregation does at church, the laundry basket has started to overflow and an indecipherable smell has started to permeate the bathroom.

The merriment is gone, the kids are driving you crazy and your house is starting to look like it belongs in an episode of Hoarders. This is when you realise just how important your housekeeper is. So much so that, on the day before she arrives, you bake her favourite koekies and even hug her when she walks in the door, because you know your life would be a shambles without her. Without nannies and housekeepers, we would see a lot of female executives arriving at work in their pyjamas because they’d be so deurmekaar.

And so this chapter is dedicated to these hardworking women of South Africa. The ones you’re not going to see on the cover of a magazine talking about the millions they’ve made, who won’t be celebrated on TV shows for having done great work for feminism, and who will certainly not have streets and buildings named after them.

We owe these superheroes more than just a hug and a fair salary. We owe them our children, our sanity and our red-soled shoes.

On behalf of all working women in South Africa, I salute you!

The Way I See It - Lerato Tshabalala - HR

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