We often touch on the ongoing debate about minimum wages and what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to the way we treat our domestic workers and nannies. Now, we say "debate" because we always get readers’ letters saying they simply cannot afford to pay more, while others ask how someone could possibly expect someone to live on so little when these women do so much for you.
That being said, regardless of what we pay, we should always treat those who help us with something as important as raising our children with the utmost respect – that’s non-negotiable.
Recently we saw a viral Facebook post in which Kyla Mills paid homage to her "other mother" in response to a discussion on a Facebook group about minimum vs fair wages. Kyla Mills spoke to Parent24 to share her beautiful story of Ma Lina, who to this day influences the way she feels and treats others. This is the story of Ma Lina and so many other domestic workers.
The post that went viral
“She’d given her heart away to my brother and patiently waited for her next child from another woman. Ma Lina lived with us. Her son, Lucas, and the niece she was raising, Dipuo, lived in a township,” wrote Kyla, in a Facebook post that went viral. “Growing up I seldom thought about who was bathing and feeding them while Ma was doing that and more for us.”
Kyla’s post elaborated on what it was like having Ma Lina in her life, reflecting on everything she'd taught her, including who Nelson Mandela was. I remember Ma showing me her 'dompas' and translating that word for me. To me, she was anything but stupid. My whole life she’d always had the answers to everything, even when my parents didn’t." Kyla also mentions how her 2-year-old self longed for Ma Lina when she went home over the holidays.
After Ma Lina's retirement, Kyla went to visit her. “When Ma Lina went home for good, I went to visit her. I saw how she and her sisters lived. And then I REALLY thought about Lucas and Dipuo. When Dipuo passed away about a year later, I informally adopted her son. How do you repay someone who spent about 90% of her childhood knowing her mother was away from her, raising you?”
Commenting on minimum wage and her relationship with her own current domestic worker, she wrote, “White people tell me I’m insane when they ask how much they should pay their 'help': 'Minimum wage is like R20!' Yes. But paying minimum wage doesn’t make you a minimum asshole. 'She uses YOUR shower?' Absolutely. If she’s the one who cleans it, she should sure as hell be able to use it. 'My employer doesn’t buy ME lunch' ... because you can afford to buy your own, friend.”
Kyla makes it clear that she's not bragging. “I understand that many people can’t afford to pay as much as we do. But I also know that there are millions who can. And we can ALL afford to treat our employees with dignity, kindness, and respect.
"It must be heartbreaking to arrive at a nice suburban house and get on your knees to be able to put food on your table. It must be even more heartbreaking to be told, 'There are so many people who would work for less, you know,' when what you know is that your wages barely cover your expenses if at all. Most of all, how heartbreaking it must be to kiss another person’s children goodnight when your own kids are going to bed without you there.”
She urges, “Please, before you settle on a value for wages, think carefully about the Lindt chocolate on the shelf while you buy pap for the people who make your lives easier. Think about the running costs of your own home and what it might be like to support a family with the money you’re giving. Think about the lives of the people your employees have a stake in, from babies to grandparents. Think about your manicured lawns and beautifully kept houses, and what an exhausted wreck you’d be if it was all up to you.
“Think about Ma Lina,” she concludes, “I always do.”
After reading her powerful post, we spoke to Kyla directly to get the full picture. The sudden interest in her post that went viral makes her feel a little uneasy, as she wonders if people praising her for it takes away from the true unsung heroes.
Kyla, who grew up in Joburg and studied psychology and education explains: “My whole childhood Ma Lina was there, carrying me, bathing me, putting me down for naps, helping me get ready for school, and many other things. From my studies I know just how critical early childhood development is and can categorically say that domestic workers play an enormous role in producing children who thrive.
“The issue of how much domestic workers get paid is a very personal one for me,” she tells Parent24.
Ma Lina, Ma Rosinah, Dipuo and Itu
She begins, telling me about Ma Lina, Ma Rosinah, Dipuo and Itu. “Ma Lina's youngest sister, Ma Rosinah, was young when she had a baby, Dipuo, so Ma Lina took on the bulk of the parenting when Dipuo was young. When Dipuo got older and had a boy, Itu, she moved back in with her mom, Ma Rosinah, and father and got her nursing qualification.
“My timing in the Facebook post was actually off: Ma worked for my parents for 26 years and actually retired when I was 24. Dipuo passed away soon afterwards. I went to visit them in Hammanskraal, the township where they lived, and the family had a meeting. I had offered to contribute financially and it was decided that Itu would stay in his grandparents’ house since he had already chosen his high school and was familiar with the comforts of home.”
Kyla describes how her relationship with Itu grew closer and closer as the years went by, visiting them at Easter, Christmas and as many birthdays as she could make. “I remember when I was studying abroad and could only send money for his birthday. He thought I would be away for Christmas but I surprised him. He stumbled down the backdoor steps and collapsed into my arms. He didn’t even want his presents – he just wanted to sit down and catch up.
“He quickly began to call me 'Mom' at his own insistence,” she says.
Kyla continues, almost gushing, “He started doing really well in school and would come stay with us in the holidays, giving me more time to connect with him. He received a Bachelor’s pass after completing matric last year.”
Kyla says Itu would like to do something in programming and she and her husband are currently saving up money to give him a good education. When Itu stays over, he sleeps in his own room in their little place. “We both love him to bits, even when he’s being a real, well, teenager,” she laughs.
“My husband accepted him into his life automatically and even asked Itu for his permission to marry me. Itu, along with Ma Lina, Ma Rosinah, and another sister of Ma Lina, had front row seats at our wedding.
“I will never forget watching my husband and Itu embrace as we left the church. I felt whole.”
“My parents are good parents and I love them dearly, but it’s like my soul just connects with Ma Lina’s”
Kyla says that although she comes from a good family that raised her to be as compassionate as she is, her extended family makes her feel complete. And I can sense it, whenever she speaks of Ma Lina.
“I’ve faced some serious challenges in my life, including a tumour which made me really sick. I would not have been able to get through it had I not had such a sturdy support system in my youth,” Kyla confesses. “My parents were good parents – they still are – and I love them dearly, but it’s like my soul just connects with Ma Lina’s.
“Every hug, every song, every moment of play that children share with adults boosts brain and immune functioning,” she explains. “How someone could treat a domestic worker purely as a low-ranking employee and pay along 'competitive' lines or minimum wage markers is challenging for me to understand.
“This is someone who comes into your home, sees a very intimate side of you, treats your children like her own, and carries you when you can’t carry yourself. Humility and respect are the bare minimum.
“I see people out in public with their domestic workers in full uniform and it makes me sad. Would we make an 'au pair' wear a uniform? Then when the kid falls or gets a fright they often raise their arms to be picked up by the domestic worker instead of the parent, which shows just how they are family.”
Kyla admits there are instances in which nannies are treated with love and respect, but it doesn't happen as often as it should. So speaking from her experiences with Ma Lina, her memories with the friends that became family over the years, as well as an upbringing in which her parents encouraged her to always be mindful of others, she says she tries her utmost to be compassionate now with Ma Joyce, who comes over to help around the house on weekends.
“I am really lucky to have such a kind-hearted husband too," she explains. "He has a special relationship with Ma Joyce and Ma Lina is besotted with him. If we are able to have children apart from Itu, we really hope to find a nanny who also has a little one so that we can support each other through it all. There are millions of Ma Linas who deserve a loving extended family; there are many families who could likewise learn from the many Ma Linas.”
Kyla says she still speaks to Ma Lina regularly and she’s planning a trip back to Hammanskraal soon – it was Ma’s birthday last week and she’d like to take her a gift. She also just loves the township and says it’s a lot less noisy and a lot more friendly than the city. It helps her feel “grounded”.
I keep thinking back to the beginning of our interview. Kyla said one of the reasons Ma Lina was initially hired was because her mom felt she immediately bonded with the dogs. The family didn’t immediately know though the impact that Ma Lina would have on the lives of so many family and "extended" family members.
Ma Lina first started working for the family when Kyla's brother was just 8 months old and she was yet to be born.
“Apparently I was an easy baby and we bonded quickly. She would speak to me in Sepedi, some of which I still remember, but only random words. I have many memories of sitting with her and her husband, eating with them and drinking 'Moria tea'. My brother and I adored her.
“I loved coming home from school and seeing her. She had such a good heart and would teach me how to navigate issues such as bullies and some social anxiety with such wisdom that my friend and I believed that she knew God personally – not in the usual sense, but like God had her on speed dial, just in case.”
What are your thoughts on the minimum wage of domestic workers and nannies? And do you have a beautiful story you'd like to share with us? Tell us by emailing your comments and stories to email@example.com and we may publish it on the site. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.
- OPINION: "Domestic workers will soon become a handful of people only the elite can afford"
- Sjoe! Our readers had quite a bit to say about the minimum wage of domestic workers and nannies
- "It's a two-way road": a reader responds to the way we treat our nannies
Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive Parent24 stories directly to your inbox.