Sunday, May 25, 2014

On Privilege- Based Prejudices: The Abuse of Domestic Workers in Southern Africa.


In January as we were sensitizing communities about justice issues in marginalized groups around the world, One Billion Rising coordinator for Swaziland Colani Hlatjwako led a group of domestic workers onto the streets to protest the abuse they experienced at the hands of their employers. You can read about the day of action here. I posted a short video clip of the women dancing and singing a song on Face Book. The words to the song is as follows: Uthin'thule kanjani um'ehlup'umedem! Abafazi laba kabazake basibone!
In English: How do you expect me to keep silent when medem is abusing me? We are the women they have never seen.”


A conversation in inbox ensued between me and a former classmate of mine, a Black African woman. Basically she was saying that it was all very well for us to call these women to protest but that nothing was ever going to change an old and entrenched system where maids and gardeners had a certain social standing and they had to know their place. It was clear as we went back and forth that my friend realized the privilege she had but she was not ready to be part of the solution to some of the awful injustices that domestic workers face daily in their jobs. What was surprising to me was the admission that she was aware that her maid (and most maids in South Africa) had to be up at 4am to get public transport in order to be at work in time to prepare breakfast for the medems and their families, so that they could leave to be on time for work. These maids often left their own children to fend for themselves or in the care of a neighbor or relative while they rushed off to take care of the "medem and baas' children.

A couple of weeks ago another former classmate and Face Book Friend posted the following as her status:

 I want to KILL my maid!!!!!
Give her leeks & sweet potatoes to my soup for tonyt.... Then show her 2 bunches of rhubarb...NOT next to the veges & say please chop this for me......
OMG..... We now have leek, sweet potatoe & rhubarb soup!!!!!! & now I need to go out & buy rhubarb for my pie tomorrow!!!! Maybe it's time for a new maid just that I’ve had Gertrude for 15yrs now....but this is not her 1st huge stuff up. She seldom listens to what I ask for these days...just can't bear the thought of havin someone new to train....worrying if they steal etc”.

My first reaction to this was a visceral anger and I started to write a response to the post. I deleted about 5 responses and decided to let it go. I thought of unfriending her but I didn’t. However I went through an entire week of reflection about what it was I found so offensive about this post.

I realize that the overwhelming feeling I had was not anger but disappointment. I felt disappointed that this person I called friend, who had reached out to me after so many years still embodied those very traumatizing Rhodesian attitudes that had prevented many of us, black and white students from forming any authentic relationships. It reminded me of how we would all hang out at school but that did not extend outside of school hours. What I recall from this time was that it was a given, an unspoken fact that most black Africans and whites did not seek each other out on weekends or outside of school hours. This post reminded me of how at school I could never bring myself to call the workers by their first names “Rosina” or “Kanesio” the way white students did with such ease. My tongue would cleave stubbornly to the roof of my mouth at the mere thought of calling a grown man who was old enough to be my father by his first name. I also remember how I would cringe every time one of the white students spoke with impudence and disrespect to any of the workers and I would get angry because the workers would never stand up for themselves.

This status update was a jarring reality check because I realize that despite the warmth and the invitations to visit her and her family when I am back home in Bulawayo, my friend and I are worlds apart. To herself and others like her, she feels justified in her anger and she sees the fact that her maid chopped up the rhubarb with the soup vegetables as a “major stuff up”, possibly punishable by dismissal from the job after 15 years of loyal service. It does not occur to her that her instructions to the maid were not clear: "Then show her 2 bunches of rhubarb...NOT next to the veges & say please chop this for me."

It does not occur to her that her maid honestly thought rhubarb was also to go into the soup because well, rhubarb looks like the spinach we black Africans eat with sadza. Allow me to show you images so you can understand better.




I myself could easily have made this mistake were it not for the fact that my sojourn in Germany exposed me to the delights of rhubarb pie and how to make it. Educated as I am if I had been in Zimbabwe I may not have known what rhubarb was or what it was used for. So to expect a maid to understand such an unclear instruction as the one above and then to view this error as a major catastrophe demonstrates what privilege does. Privilege blinds us and insulates us from the lived experiences of others. It prevents empathy and compassion because according to the status, my friend was ready to fire Gertrude, if not for the fact that training a new maid was a nuisance and of course added to this was the possibility of employing a thief. Stereotypes and preconceived (ill- conceived) notions of the “other” are at the root of privilege- based prejudices.
I had decided to leave the whole matter alone until last week another friend posted this image on her wall.

The caption to the image was: ...We love housekeepers who are so devoted to caring for fur-kids

Another image was also circulating and the caption on this one read: When the owners of this dog asked their housekeeper to take him for a walk, they weren't expecting this.

These images sparked total outrage amongst Black South Africans and a few white South Africans. The Majority of White people however ooed and ahhed over the pictures and others insisted that these pictures were ‘innocent” and that Blacks generally needed to get over apartheid. In fact one woman who went to school with my activist friend who had posted the picture wrote: “When we were in school you had such potential. But I can see that you are still hung up on Blacks being downtrodden by apartheid. I am disappointed”  Clearly my friend was supposed to feel guilty for having taken offense at such an "innocent picture" and white privilege had the other woman believing that my friend must have somehow sought her approval (how could she not seek the approval of her white classmate?! Is that not what all educated Black were striving for?!) and therefore she would punish her by withdrawing it. 

Given the history of Black oppression by Whites in Southern Africa images of a black maid with a dog on her back are extremely disturbing, to say the least. To the argument that “Well she is happy, look she is smiling so she was not forced to do this”: There is a huge power differential between the majority of Blacks and Whites and an added layer of complexity is the maid/ master relationship. The idea that a black woman who may be leaving her own kids in the township to go to work would willingly strap a DOG on her back is highly improbable to me. Black people’s relationship to their dogs is vastly different from that of white people and their dogs. Most times dogs stay outside the house not inside. They do not get special treatment and they are fed left overs NOT special dog food from the pet store. Middle class Blacks who can afford special dog food and medical insurance for their pets are not in the majority of black dog owners, but even they would be affronted by these image which are so symbolic about all that is wrong with the racial and power dynamics in South Africa.

 There is a total disconnect and disregard by many whites to the sensibilities of Black people. In fact Black people’s lived experience and their pain are so far removed from those of whites that it doesn’t occur to them to stop and reflect for a moment how these images are degrading and dehumanizing. It is these whites who believe that the current condition of the majority of Blacks in southern Africa is entirely of their own making. Perhaps it does occur to them but they simply do not care because if they did care statements like “black people need to get over apartheid” would not escape their lips.

If they cared they would understand that apartheid ended on the books, it was made illegal but it still exists entrenched in the systemic/ structural economic/ paradigm that still has the wealth, land and all sectors of the economy in the hands of the minority whites while majority blacks continue to live in squalor. If they cared they would be active participants in the redistribution of resources and holding government accountable instead of lamenting the good old days and continuing to treat their helpers with contempt and disregard. If they cared they would face the fact that the rampant crime and violence are symptoms of the poverty, rage and frustration fueled by years of oppression and disenfranchisement and that the only way to ameliorate it is to address the root causes. Building more and more gated communities to keep “them out” is only a temporary solution to an ever swelling ocean of discontent. When the tsunami of black rage rises in waves out of Alexandra, Dipsloot, Khayelitsha and the barren rural areas on which blacks were resettled while whites took fertile land, those high walls will not stem the tide. If they cared they would realize that stereotypes and preconceived (ill- conceived) notions of the “other” are at the root of privilege- based prejudices.

To be able to have someone who cleans up and takes care of one's home is a privilege that many people in the developing world can afford. The issue is not about having house help. On the contrary these helpers are the ones who make it possible for people who can afford them to go to work and to do what they have to do. It is also good that there is employment for people who may otherwise have no other means of earning a living. What is vital, is to realize and to respectfully acknowledge their humanity and to pay them a decent living wage that takes into account the challenges they face in order to get to work. Many Black Africans also mistreat their house help and they are part of an oppressive system that once upon a time oppressed them also. We cannot forget so quickly and allow our newly acquired or earned privilege to perpetrate injustice on our domestic workers. We know better and many of our new lives are just a few degrees removed from our domestic workers' lived experiences and we can relate.Many of us have relatives who themselves are domestic workers and in the same way we would not abuse our kith and kin, we should not abuse domestic workers.  

If our privilege blinds us to the lived realities of others around us and we neglect to acknowledge that we have much because others have less, then we have only ourselves to blame when the manifestation of our neglect and blindness is visited upon us.


The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party in South Africa. The  above image is of parliamentarians being sworn in and their attire is symbolic of who these leaders represent. The fact that members of this fledgling party won seats in parliament is indicative of the appeal that their manifesto has for the young, domestic workers, mine workers, farm laborers and the disenfranchised. This image is powerful and requires no explanation. It is however, enough to say that those we marginalize will be brought front and center and they will no longer be in the shadows. The forgotten ones whose contributions we trivialize and take for granted will become prominent and our abuse of them will be accounted for.