Thursday, February 15, 2007



Sage's comment on my last post reminded me of something that I've been wanting to write about for a while. She said:

I was so uncomfortable with the whole maid system when I was in South Africa. We'd never had hired help in any way while I was growing up, so I didn't know how to respond or treat people. But I will say that I'd never had my whites bleached whiter; it converted me to clotheslines.

I felt the same way exactly, the first time we went to South Africa in 2005. I was really nervous and shy, and felt that it was somehow wrong to have domestic staff, somehow exploitative. I suppose in some ways it is a bit of a legacy of apartheid. Certainly, I never saw a white person cleaning houses.

company gardens

Pretty much all manual labour in South Africa is performed by black people: construction, landscaping, roadworks, garbage collection, pumping petrol. On this visit, I did see a white man helping to maintain some park or something I think. And I saw (and photographed) a white man in a blue uniform sitting with a bunch of other (black) men in blue uniforms, which are commonly seen on "the workers."


That's the white worker, next to Sugar Daddy's elbow.

But that was it, in a land where I saw probably hundreds of construction workers and landscapers. Most servers are still black or coloured, although we did come across some white servers, who were generally very snooty. (Do I need to clarify that in South Africa it's perfectly acceptable and not racist to discuss and acknowledge race? I get hugely uncomfortable talking about race in Canada, where we try to ignore it. But I think these observations are impossible not to make in South Africa.)

I found myself taking a lot of pictures of these men in blue uniforms. I think partly because in Canada, most people building houses and doing landscaping are white.

I felt hugely embarrassed and uncomfortable when the maid cleaned our bedroom, which I doubt I need to say was a total and utter mess. I would have at least made the bed and put things into piles or something if I knew someone was going to (come into let alone) clean our room.

For me, that is one of the great contradictions of apartheid: that black people couldn't move freely, or live outside designated areas, but they could enter the most intimate areas of white people's lives: they could raise their children, clean their messes, and wash their dirty laundry.

watering II

Anyways, back to our visit in 2005. Probably the best thing for me to get comfortable with the whole maid thing, was to stay with Sugar Daddy's Auntie J in Joburg. They had a young woman working as their maid, who stayed in the quarters in the garden. We spent quite a bit of time with her during the day, because the family was out working or at school. Her name was Happy, which sounded like "Hepi" to my Canadian ears. Anyways, she was from Zimbabwe, but spoke English very well. She said the situation in Zimbabwe was awful, with absolutely no opportunities. For her, South Africa was the golden land of opportunity. She was very clear that she didn't want to clean houses forever, and she was trying to get a visa so she could study and become a bookkeeper or something like that.

She was a very sweet young woman, and I enjoyed her softspoken company. She also ironed like no tomorrow. Though I can't say I've been converted to ironing (we still don't own one) but I am converted to the idea of nicely pressed clothes. She even ironed our underwear!

One day she was eating lunch and reading the paper in the original looking 1920's art deco kitchen. The light was soft and I wanted to take her picture. I asked, and she said not in her cleaning clothes and kerchief. She wanted me to wait until she had her nice clothes on after her eight hours were up. So I did, but the picture was disappointing.

All in all, she was treated very well, her hours were the same as mine, and like me when I worked shit jobs in high school and uni, she had ambitions for better work. So the whole maid thing no longer seemed like such a bad thing.

I did get to see Happy again at this visit. She only works a couple of afternoons a week at Auntie J's because she's gotten a job in a doctor's office, and she's studying by correspondence to be a bookkeeper. Her hair hung in long beautiful braids, and (I hope this isn't rude but) she was much more gorgeous than the last time we saw her (and she was pretty the last time we saw her). It was really good to see her. When she got ready to leave shortly after we arrived, she got changed into her street clothes, which were totally high fashion, complete with broad diagonal stripes, big earrings and dainty little high heels. She dresses better than I ever have in my life.

Anyways, it was good to see her looking so well and successful, and I'm so happy that she's able to study.

So... this time around I felt reasonably comfortable with most of the maids we encountered. Bridget, the one whose photograph I posted yesterday, seemed really sweet. After I'd cut up Swee'pea's birthday cake and distributed it to the family, I went back for a second piece for myself. She was sitting in the kitchen, hidden from the family by a partial wall, just sitting. I offered her a piece of cake, and she gestured that she'd like some. I felt good sharing the cake with her, because even though she was new, it seems to me that a closeness develops with people who spend so much time in the same space.

bicycles at cat and moose

* * *

On Monday I bought some bananas that were ripe, and I knew we couldn't eat them all on time. That's ok I figured; I'll make banana bread. And I may as well get the ingredients for the macaroni and cheese with leeks while I'm at it. Ooh and I can make my yummy lasagna too.

Yesterday morning I remembered that our oven is broken.

We need to buy a new one AND have it installed before I can use an oven again. Wah!

* * *

To the person who came here wanting to learn "how to write Runny Poo in graffiti." I'm sorry. I don't know how. (But I am pleased that I am Number Two in the search results, even above a popular blogger like Dad Gone Mad.)

To the person in Australia who first came here searching for "getting caught without South African passport" and then a few minutes later came searching for "chances of getting caught without South African passport?" try calling the Ottawa Embassy. Who knows, maybe you're not actually a South African citizen.

* * *

Poor Swee'pea sounds worse than a two-pack-a-day-for-eighty-years smoker. He's miserable. So are we.


NotSoSage said...


I'd love to sit down with you sometime and chat about SA.

Thanks for this post. I've heard many different takes on this; I had a close friend who grew up in Kenya and Tanzania and always had maids at home and she made the same point as you do. The thing is, I know that working as a maid can provide opportunities like the one you've described Happy taking advantage of. But I also think it's just something that will always rub me the wrong way. Even though I don't have a better solution...

I've tried to examine my own thoughts on it (since my reaction is more visceral than considered) and I think what it comes down to is that in South Africa race and class are so inextricably linked.

You're right, I saw very few whites doing manual labour or even in service positions (and when I saw whites working in a restaurant, they were usually waiting tables while the busboys were black) and, given what I knew of the history of apartheid it just seemed to be a stamp of the history that this country is still trying to get a hold on.

The other thing is, I didn't have the chance that you did to get to know many of the maids well and so I didn't know what their wages were like or how they were treated by their employers. I'm sure that part of the problem is that I'm superimposing my North American understanding of racial dynamics on a culture that is completely different than my own.

I don't feel like I'm saying all I really want to say here, but it's a start and thanks again for this interesting post!

Beck said...

Completely off topic, but my husband came in and squinted at the photo of YOUR husband. "Who is that guy?" he asked me.
Her husband, I answered.
He paused and said "That guy looks like me!" He found it very disconcerting. And they DO look alike!
Gorgeous post, by the way.

cinnamon gurl said...

That's it exactly: class and race are linked. I don't know when you visited SA, but some of the class/race link is improving -- slowly, painfully slowly, but still improving. The black middle class is growing. Two years ago I didn't see a single white manual labourer...

One thing I forgot to mention too, is that most employers make lunch for their workers... over time, they find out what they like, and prepare it for them. I think it's sweet, and not something I've ever seen in Canada (probably because people get paid so much more here but still).

NotSoSage said...


Summer of 2000. That's why it's cool to hear your stories about how things are changing. It's inspiring.

penelopeto said...

I was wondering if/when/how you were going to address race in SA. I grew up with lots of families from SA, and I gotta say, even as a little kid I was uncomfortable with the way they talked about the servants and wealth they had back home, and how not having maids in Canada was one of the hardest things to get used to.

Oh, The Joys said...

When we would stay in guesthouses in S.A. we would often be standing in a room meeting our hosts and the maid would be there too along with other guests. We'd be introduced to all the white people and it was as if the black maid(s) wasn't even there. Gah!

cinnamon gurl said...

Joys, that's terrible! I think that was the sort of treatment that I was expecting, that made me feel it was wrong. But the people we stayed with, (granted, Sugar Daddy's family are all very well educated, intelligent, liberal and were anti-apartheid throughout those awful years) all made sure to introduce us to the maids as soon as we were in the same room. They really treated them like fellow human beings.

Penelope, I'm not saying there aren't racist South Africans; there are. But it WOULD be really hard to get used to doing ALL your own housework AND yardwork, especially since it seems like EVERYONE there wears perfectly pressed clothes. In the hostel where each family gets a single bed, where 45 people share a very small space, I saw two irons... and I'm sure there were lots more hidden away. That's a lot of work to do!

The other thing to consider is the astronomical unemployement rate (I've seen between 26 and 40 percent, and I think it's hard to pin down because they can't even pin down the number of people living in these informal settlements). If they raised wages to a point where most middle class people couldn't afford some amount of help, there would be even fewer jobs. I noticed in a lot of situations people were doing jobs that in Canada are done by machines. (Eg, there are NO self-serve petrol stations.)

There are lots of things that make me uncomfortable in SA, but when I feel uncomfortable, is it my problem, or is something really wrong? Mostly, I have a hard time making the decision.

cinnamon gurl said...

I think the thing that made me most uncomfortable in SA was the way just about everyone's race had to be identified... someone's not a nurse, she's a black nurse. Things like that...

Aliki2006 said...

God, your pics are breath-taking--absolutely brilliant!

I really liked this post--I've been wondering too about your thoughts on race/class etc. re: SA. Very interesting.