Black authors, maids and madams

How black South African authors have written about domestic workers. There's a rich archive there.

Zanele Muholi, "Massa and Minah 2," 2008

Damn, and I thought madamhood was going to be easy.

– Zukiswa Wanner, The Madams (2006)

In the wake of President F.W. de Klerk’s 1990 announcement that liberation movements such as the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress were unbanned, South African writers began to shift their focus from the struggle against apartheid—which was, until then, the grand narrative of twentieth-century South African literature.

In spite of political changes, one of the most traditional aspects of South African life continued as before: the demography of cities, and the fact that black domestic workers continued to be employed by white families. To this day, over a million workers remain in domestic employment. However, as in similar situations elsewhere and in other times, the literary representation of domestic workers began to change and ever since 1990, black female characters have been stepping out of the shadows, with their own names, voices and identities.

While white authors such as Antjie Krog, Jo-Anne Richards and Damon Galgut continue to grapple with the ambivalent and complex relations involving black women in subordinate positions in post-apartheid South Africa, black authors, on the other hand, have opened new spaces, as if in response to the call of Njabulo S. Ndebele to “rediscover the ordinary.” Jacob Dlamini’s autobiographical Native Nostalgia (2009) is a case in point. It might be said that many black authors “write back” to the metropolitan “center” (i.e. the grand anti-apartheid narrative) by writing stories not of heroic political activists, but of ordinary people such as mothers and aunts, many of whom happen to be domestic workers.

Marita, MaRosie and Pertunia—Johannesburg, post-2000

My maid became my rock as she held me and I cried on her shoulder.

A 2004 Financial Mail survey found that close to 300,000 black South Africans were earning middle-class incomes. This was two years before Zukiswa Wanner’s The Madams was published, and about the time sociologist Alison King was working on her study, Domestic Servants in Post-Apartheid South Africa. According to King, “domestic service is a supreme site to discover if class inequalities are replacing racial inequalities as the means to exploit and oppress the vulnerable in South African society.” After interviewing many employers and employees, King noted that her sample might not be sufficiently representative, as she could not find a single white domestic worker to interview in the Eastern Cape: “All I spoke to were adamant that no white woman in Grahamstown would work for a black employer as a domestic servant.” King’s finding that black employers could be extremely harsh on their black servants supports those of K Hansen, whose research showed that in 1989 Zambia social hierarchies between employers and employees develop regardless of race. Similarly, with reference to Tanzania, J Bujra argued as follows: “It is important not to discount the possibility that the oppressed can become oppressors, and that women together are not bound in sisterhood if divided by class.”

It is against this background that The Madams may be read. The daughter of a Zimbabwean mother and a South African political exile, Wanner was raised in Lusaka before moving to Johannesburg, and then to Nairobi. The cover promises that Wanner’s book is a “wildly provocative novel,” asserting that “nothing is simply black and white.” Set in Lombardy East, a Johannesburg suburb, the focalizer of The Madams is Thandi, who manages a government tourism department. Thandi, an ambitious black woman, is “done with being a Supermom to her five-year-old son, a Superslut to her man and a Superwoman to her staff’,” and decides to acquire “the great South African bourgeois accessory,” a domestic worker who must be white—a scenario that promises to disrupt reader expectations regarding madams and maids.

Her neighbor, Lauren, “an Anglo plaasmeisie without the plaas” is a lecturer at Wits university, a job she would not have been able to hold down without a servant. Lauren prides herself on the fact that her children get on well with their nanny, and that the first word they spoke was not “Mommy” but “MaRosie.” Thandi’s other neighbor is Nosizwe (Siz), a successful black entrepreneur who, we are told, is “one of those few black South African pre-independence children who were born with beaded silver spoons in their mouths.” Professing to alleviate black unemployment, Siz “imports” a cousin from the Eastern Cape to look after her husband’s illegitimate children.

Thandi, however, does not want a black domestic worker. Even though her own mother had black helpers, and fully aware that township women often employ poorer sisters or nieces to look after their children, Thandi has nevertheless made up her mind: regarding Siz’s “maid-recruiting” efforts, she says: “I simply do not have it in me to insult a ‘sister’ in my home.” Her assumption is that domestic workers are by definition treated badly, and she believes she would feel less guilty “lashing out at a white person.”

All expectations are therefore disrupted when Thandi finds “an employable-challenged individual,” a young white Afrikaans woman who has just served a prison sentence after murdering her abusive husband. Marita is thrilled to get the job, and her reaction is instant when Thandi asks whether she might not have a problem working as a “maid for kaffirs”: “Marita flinched visibly when I used the k-word and said, ‘Sorry madam, please don’t use words like that around me, ne?'”’ Marita is an ANC-supporter, and maintains that black people have only ever been kind to her. She gets the job, moves into the en-suite granny flat with its own TV, and wears a traditional pink maid’s uniform with pride. Soon afterwards, MaRosie from next door becomes her best friend.

In her very amusing novel Wanner reverses traditional roles and makes important political statements while wryly revealing the complexity of relationships between employers and employees in South Africa. She disrupts and unsettles typical representations of the madam-maid situation, and does so in a satirical manner that teaches as it entertains. Similarly, her apparently humorous Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave your Madam (2013) is a serious analysis of exploitation in the domain of domestic work. Wanner demonstrates that factors such as economic status are becoming influential new markers of identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Madams are to be found at all levels of society, with domestic work being a last resort, irrespective of race.

Old Virginia and Gogo—Johannesburg, post-2000

Stuck between two worlds, shunned by both.

The first part of Kopano Matlwa’s coming-of-age novel Coconut (2007) is told from the perspective of a young black girl from a rich family who describes the difficulties of growing up in a white neighborhood. Ofilwe lives in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb where she and her brother Tshepo are the only black children. Old Virginia is the family’s domestic worker. In contrast, the second part of the novel focuses on the ambitions of a poor black girl working as a waitress in an upmarket coffee shop. Fikile’s grandmother, a typical go-between figure, used to bring her magazines from her white employer’s home. Fikile “lived in those magazines, and the more (she) read, the more assured (she) was that the life in those pages was the one (she) was born to live.” This fantasy world leads her to hate her people—and also to a kind of self-hatred. As a waitress she moves around in the world she aspires to become part of, clearly in denial that she is in fact nothing more than a servant in a public place.

Pertinent issues such as race, language and identity in South Africa are discussed in a fresh manner, with domestic workers functioning as important go-between characters. They are seen to embody traditional labor relations, but patterns are radically changing. Characters such as Old Virginia and Gogo, elderly black women who, thanks to their servant positions, gained insight into white people long before apartheid ended, play pivotal roles. They know how impossible it was to aspire to live like white people, and their function is to formulate the ongoing complexity of negotiating racial boundaries. As such, Old Virginia and Gogo play significant roles in this unravelling process. For many decades, women like them lived in close proximity to white people, an experience that underlined the comparative discomfort of their own home lives. In their cramped rooms, a cold-water tap and inside toilet would have been considered a luxury. Harsh apartheid laws made it impossible to aspire to becoming a part of city life. Despite the everyday contact between maids and madams, the dividing lines were clear and non-negotiable.

The title Coconut is an internationally used term which also has currency in post-apartheid Johannesburg and the “coconut” motif is key to examining race as a determinant in the formation of identity. Matlwa does so in uncomfortable and unpredictable ways. For a young black author writing in a new political dispensation, Matlwa’s approach is especially daring. Coconut deals with nouveau riche pretentions, but it also investigates the complex emotional and social aspects of lives lived between cultures and classes. Coconut carries a strong message to a new generation of young black people: nothing is easy in post-1994 South Africa, and to “walk home” to one’s “roots” may not be a bad option—whether through keeping contact with rural families or with township gogos in domestic service.

Tokkie—Cape Town, the 1950s and beyond

Tokkie was part of their family so to speak.

In  Zoë Wicomb’s first volume of short stories, You Can’t get Lost in Cape Town (1987), it is already clear how accurately the author, born in 1948, the year the National Party came to power, reads and represents South African society. Then, a few years after the publication of her novel, David’s Story (2000), Playing in the Light (2006) appeared. It tells the story of a young businesswoman in post-apartheid South Africa who discovers that she is the daughter of “try for white” parents. Though men were attracted by her beauty—”a hint of Italian perhaps”—she generally kept her distance from people, much as her parents had. The first part of the novel is situated in post-apartheid South Africa, while the events of the second part occur in the 1950s, when Marion’s parents were newlyweds and later when she was a young child.

A coloured servant, Tokkie, often comes to visit Marion’s mother, a “white” woman who turns out to be Tokkie’s daughter, with the main character being her granddaughter. Confronting the cruel irony of her family’s lonely “try for white” life now that racial separation is not longer legislated, Marion angrily demands that her father should reveal everything, especially since he seems oblivious of the “terrible injury” he and his wife inflicted on the family. Their decision to change their “status” happened by chance, he explains: while applying for a job at the Cape Town municipal council it was presumed from his appearance that he was white—an indication of the arbitrariness of the racial classification of “coloureds.” The re-classification of John and Helen to white enabled them to live far more comfortable lives, but it came at a huge cost.

Tokkie, an engaging domestic worker character, plays a central role in the plot. Each week, the old coloured woman arrived at the small house in Observatory, with the neighbors being told that Helen’s Afrikaans family were rich enough to employ Tokkie as a nanny. She always sat in a dilapidated cane chair where she shelled peas in an enamel bowl on her lap. Marion has fond memories of Tokkie, the way she comforted and petted her until she fell asleep on her lap.

Years after both her grandmother and her mother have died Marion is concerned not so much with the new racial identity she only finds out she has when it is in any case no longer of legal consequence, but rather with the implications of the race classification system for her mother and the grandmother she had so loved:

How am I to bear the fact that my Tokkie, my own grandmother, sat in the backyard drinking coffee from a servant’s mug, and that my mother, her own daughter, put that mug in her hands?

This scene is a poignant reminder of the in-between position occupied for centuries by domestic workers in South Africa. They were the only “non-white” people who could legitimately enter the domestic space of white people without arousing suspicion, and their enamel mugs signaled their “servant status.”

Estella—Durban, early Twenty-first Century

If one was unhappy then so was the other.

Imraan Coovadia’s incisive and amusing novel, High Low In-between (2009), made its appearance the year after President Thabo Mbeki left office; during his nine-year tenure, his contentious views on HIV/AIDS had caused a national uproar. Coovadia’s character, Arif, a virology professor, is largely based on his father, Dr. Hoosen Coovadia, a respected HIV/AIDS researcher whose findings were allegedly suppressed by the ANC government.

High Low In-between addresses the issue of social change through the character Estella, a beautiful Zulu woman who shifts the perception of her Indian employer, Nafisa. Estella makes her aware that power relations have not only altered politically, but also on a personal level, as she looks forward to an upwardly mobile future. In examining the complex in-between position of Indians in South Africa, the novel zooms in, at times, on the ambivalent relationship between Nafisa and Estella, a character who has largely been ignored by critics. This “blind spot in relation to a domestic worker character” is especially noteworthy in a novel whose very title points to the notion of hierarchy.

HIV/AIDS, a world-wide problem that would become one of post-apartheid South Africa’s greatest burdens, is highlighted in Estella’s refusal to be tested for the disease, which may be symptomatic of the government’s controversial treatment campaign at the time. Four years prior to publication of High Low In-between, Sally Peberdy and Natalya Dinat had released findings relating to domestic workers and HIV/AIDS in the Johannesburg area. Of the 1,100 domestic workers interviewed, 60% had sex at least once a month, while 7.7% had sex only once or twice per year; 40% described themselves as single, widowed or divorced; many had children, and many admitted to having “boyfriends.” Most domestic workers had access to the state’s health services, and those who consulted traditional healers also went to “ordinary” doctors. A disturbing finding was that domestic workers took few precautions to protect themselves from the disease:

[D]espite their use of health services, the majority of these women do not appear to be protecting themselves from HIV infection. A defining characteristic of this group is the lack of condom use. Over 60% of the sample had never used a condom in their lives.

The situation in Durban would not have been very different, and Estella’s circumstances could be said to reflect those of her Johannesburg counterparts. Nafisa would have laid down strict rules concerning Estella’s room on the premises, since even though she lived alone there, she had a small child in the township, and probably also a “boyfriend.” Estella refuses to get her HIV status checked, despite her employer’s concern: “Estella’s chances weren’t good. The numbers in this province for sexually active black women like Estella were the worst in the world, one in two.”

The entanglement of Nafisa and Estella is continuously expressed in terms of their intimate working relationship, and right from the start we are told: “Estella, the maid, was miserable because of Nafisa, her employer. If one was unhappy then so was the other. In this one way Estella and Nafisa were, people said, like mother and daughter.” In Coovadia’s High Low In-between, the employer is devastated when she realizes that she is losing the one person she thought she could order around and claim as a daughter or friend forever. Precisely because she is not family, Estella will disappear from her employer’s life as suddenly as she became a part of it.

Seismographs of change

Traditional hierarchies are fast changing in South Africa, and although anonymous servant figures still appear in post-1994 literature, these characters frequently serve important new functions. The silences that traditionally shrouded such figures has been broken: they not only embody but also problematize the interdependence and intimacy in employer/employee relationships. They also dramatize the insecurities of changing identities. This is achieved in unique and often humorous ways in the novels by Wanner, Matlwa, Wicomb and Coovadia. These authors not only give voice and agency to domestic worker characters, but also individual identity. These and other post-apartheid novels by black authors sensitive to seismographic shifts in the South African order of things articulate the deep-seated anxieties of employers—whether white or black—and do so in often humorous ways, exposing the fragility of these close relationships as workers decide to move on.

A new generation of domestic worker characters signals a significant break in a long literary tradition of stereotypes, of  marginal and meek figures. These genies have escaped the bottle: liberated from traditional roles, Estella and her sisters pose an ongoing challenge to outdated societal norms, and do so in urgent and often entertaining ways.

This is an abridged version of chapter 11 of Jansen’s book Like Family (2019). It appears here with the permission of the publisher, Wits University Press.

About the Author

Ena Jansen was professor of South African literature at the University of Amsterdam until 2016.

Further Reading

Like family

An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.

Back to class

The emphasis on identity and difference act to temper the radical potential of South Africa’s youth. They need an education on class politics.