The white madam's burden

David Bullard writes on the employer-domestic relations of the white middle class

Popular urban legend has it that white men can’t jump. They made a movie about this years ago in less enlightened days but the gist of this appalling racial slur is that white men are too short to make good basket ball players. I daresay that, in these newly “woke” times, a strong case could be made for lowering the height of the basket ball hoop from the current 10 feet to 6 feet to compensate for the height challenged, pale members of our community.

And while they are about it they could widen the hoop from the current 18 inches to 24 inches and broaden the backboard by a few inches too. This would greatly reduce the incidence of “short shaming” within society and persuade a lot of short white men that they could have become Harlem Globetrotters if the rules for competition entry hadn’t been so obviously biased against white people.

We whiteys may not be able to jump but, contrary to the fond imaginings of the lefty media, we can certainly work a vacuum cleaner, load a dishwasher and operate a washing machine and, in my particular case, iron a shirt to perfection. Accuse me of getting in touch with my feminine side if you wish but I find ironing very relaxing and like nothing more than putting Pink Floyd’s “Division Bell” on at a healthy volume and putting a crease down the front of my Levi 501’s. When the domestic arrives on a Thursday there is hardly any ironing to be done which makes me wonder why we employ her at all.

Well, the reason we employ her is partly due to post-colonial guilt but mainly due to the fact that she is a lovely person, has a couple of young children to support and desperately needs the work. Our domestic worker isn’t even a South African. She is here perfectly legally with refugee status from one of our hugely successful neighbouring states. The fact is, like many white families I suspect, we don’t actually need a domestic worker.

In fact we haven’t needed a full time domestic for the past 15 years when the dog died and we were both out at work during the day. That was when we still had a live-in domestic who had so little to do in our childless home that she was finished by midday and bored out of her mind. We have always been a very tidy household.

The full time domestic retired after 20 years of service with a chunky cash payment and is now the beneficiary every month of a payment linked to an annuity. She hadn’t a clue what an annuity was when she retired and was highly suspicious but is very grateful for it now and keeps calling down God’s blessing on me.

I would be very surprised if I’m the only whitey in this country who has looked after loyal staff in this way. Like so many others I know, we also built her a house on tribal land and contributed towards the children’s education. When the domestic had an infected tooth we persuaded her not to have it removed without anesthetic with a pair of pliers in a township shack but to try the white man’s muti and visit our dentist to get it looked at professionally at our expense.

The only problem came with the after extraction pain killers and the perfectly logical assumption on the domestic’s part that if two painkillers were prescribed then six would be even more effective.

The current domestic operative (she still calls herself a maid despite my attempts to bully her into PC speak) only comes once a week and the honest truth is we don’t really need her. I can manage all the household tasks quite adequately on my own and have found a way to vacuum the entire house from one plug point with an extension lead. The whole process takes 30 minutes at most. I can mop a kitchen floor in ten minutes and my attitude to the layers of dust that accrue in my part of the Cape is very simple. Let them lie for a few weeks and then have a blitz. Nobody will know any different.

So why do we do it? Maybe we do it because we know we have this dreadful albatross called “white privilege” hanging around our necks and need some sort of absolution. Or perhaps, more realistically, it’s because many white South Africans are, contrary to frequent attempts to portray them as otherwise in the main stream media, fundamentally decent people who realize that we live in a skewed society and want to do whatever they can to make lives brighter for their less fortunate fellow citizens.

Far from being “lackadaisical” as Mr Ramaphosa insultingly dismissed them earlier this year, whites who have remained in South Africa since 1994 have the best interests of the country at heart and take no pleasure in watching the systematic exploitation and mockery of the poor by the very political parties who purport to represent their interests. Imagine the impact on unemployment figures if white South Africans suddenly decided not to employ domestic staff.

In addition to a weekly domestic we also employ a gardener every fortnight. He, too, is a refugee but this time from Zimbabwe. Normally a cheerful fellow he looked very serious when I picked him up from the station last Thursday. He told me that he had been watching TV the previous evening and seen shots of the problems in Alexandra township. What had affected him most was the scenes of squalor in the township with human faeces washing down the street. How can people live like that he asked me?

And then he added that even at Zimbabwe’s lowest point under Mad Bob things never got that bad. Like me, he’s not optimistic about SA’s future but, also like me, he’s nowhere else to go.


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