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17 April 2014 09:27 (South Africa)
Opinionista Andrew Miller

Maids, gardeners, hearts

  • Andrew Miller
The interactions between employers and domestic help are, often, the platform on which our race and class relations are acted out. So it follows that real change starts with real engagement. But that also involves a substantial emotional risk.

“What can we do?” a member of the audience asked Jay Naidoo last week. It was the discussion session during an event held by the Entrepreneurs Organisation, and the question referred to the generally fraught state of the nation and the potential role in social change to be played by the upper middle classes – the executives and entrepreneurs.

“How much do you know about your domestic worker? About their families?” Mr Naidoo asked, somewhere in the middle of his reply. The question was rhetorical, of course. No South African can pull such a complex thread and have the evening stay on schedule. 

In suburban South Africa, relationships between domestic workers and employers are often the true coal face of social interaction. The garden, the kitchen, the toilet – these are the places where many (the majority?) of South Africa's class interactions take place. It's logical, then, that key social interventions can be made in these very areas. But we also all know how difficult turning this seemingly simple idea into action actually is.

It's a race thing, naturally, but in 2013 the domestic/employer relationship is also a class thing - I have often witnessed the hardest of hardcore Biko revolutionaries treat domestic staff atrociously, on financial and personal levels. Once you hire someone to clean up your mess, all sorts of weird dynamics evolve, and they are by no means restricted to the white/black, master/servant South African tradition.

While we always talk about money and the pragmatic aspects of why seeking to know the real cirumstances of your employee's life are so fraught, I believe it's in the realm of the heart that we really fear, and must risk if we want to develop and grow as a country. My take is that many employers (myself included) are frightened that if they expose themslves to the reality of their domestic worker's lives they won't be able to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak. It's the future trajectory of the relationship that we find so disconcerting. It could go anywhere, and that makes us feel many awkward things. We already know about the poverty, the appalling education, family ill health, the plight of the children and all that. And thus, if we expose ourselves beyond the occasional lending of money, we fear we may lose control. And we fear the personal hurt – on all sides – that can easily result.   

Jay Naidoo's words made me think immediately of the two staff we are currently retrenching as our art gallery closes down.

Both Patrick and Irene came to work at the gallery via the servant's entrance. Patrick was working as a one morning a week gardener twelve years ago. We hired him us as temporary crafter to cover for a maternity leave worker.

Irene, now in her mid-forties, was taken (literally) as a teenage bride in the Transkei, aged nineteen. She rebelled, left the Eastern Cape the next day and ended up in Gauteng, unemployed and largely uneducated. A few years later, strange ulcers began to develop on her legs – of the type usually associated with diabetes and other serious illnesses. Like most of her generation, the only work Irene could ever reasonably look for was domestic. She worked for a few white families, looked after their children and so on. But her ulcers made things very difficult. Employers do not respond well to the uncertainty of leg ulcers. To struggles with movement. To the logistical inconvenience of pain. 

Seven years ago, when she arrived at our house as a temporary, one-morning-a-week domestic, Irene was gritting her teeth in the traditional South African manner. Her attitude and immediate circumstances worked in her favour, and she soon started working at our gallery at a domestic type salary. Her basic job was cleaning, and we started training her in craft art and other things to do with our business. Now, as we shut it all down, she manages the online mailing list, happily crops and exports photos of artwork for use on the website, takes care of artist enquiries, types up the price lists, cleans the floor, washes the dishes and makes increasingly impressive art of her own... the list is long. Considering where she started, her professional growth is amongst the most impressive of the hundreds of young and middle-aged people we're worked with over the years.

Our growth as a social business took the opposite path to hers, however. The recession hit, and the philosophical chickens started circling ominously, looking to roost. For many reasons, most having to do with our own business inexperience and an inability to do the hard maths, the business buckled and, finally, after ten years, has folded.

The biggest concern we had when fiddling with the latch on the liquidation guillotine was Pat and Irene. Having worked with these people for so long, and having watched them slowly inching away from a life of cleaning and sweeping, we felt responsible. Like if we did what had to be done on a business level we would personally be pushing them back off a cliff we had helped them to climb. The business logic was undeniable, but in our hearts we have truly struggled to follow that logic.

Now Irene, who has only had this one meaningful job in her entire life, and who has finally, against all the odds, developed a real skill set, is thrown back out into the brutal South African job quest.

With incurable leg ulcers.

After years and years of dogged public health enquiries, in 2012 she ended up at the Steve Biko academic hospital for what she believed was an operation that could finally cure her condition, but which was actually, as it turned out, and as the hospital staff blithely neglected to explain to her, an exploratory diagnostic venture. After they sewed her up she was bluntly told the truth. Irene is one in a billion. She is missing the veins in her legs that are supposed to carry the blood back to her heart – hence the ulcers and the pain and bandages and the struggles to walk and the dread of the winter cold. There is, according to the Steve Biko guys, nothing to be done.

Patrick, meanwhile, had twins – one of whom was born with a severe congenital defect, Arthrogryposis, which has resulted in a myriad of complications and medical visits over many, many years.

In March they will both receive a pathetic retrenchment package, and that's that.

Is it this situation, really, that we fear? We, the employers Jay Naidoo is asking that question of? In my current state of mind, I find myself pondering whether we are terrified of the idea that we will have created hope (single-handedly, of course!) and will then be responsible for the fall. And if so, that we often instead choose not to do anything at all – because stasis is safer, emotionally.

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And Irene and Patrick really have climbed. Here's a photo of Irene at the top of the world, at the end of last year, at the Brainstorm Magazine Calendar function, where she and Patrick were each selected to by Internet Solutions to be one of the calendar's twelve artists for the year. It's a long way down to Thembisa from here, baby.

Or is it?

Will Irene necessarily go back to where she came from? Is this really a binary situation? A this or that thing? Or is my heart, ever subtle and whimsical, actually misleading me, the employer? In other words, are my emotional fears for this relationship grounded in reality?

In my heart I fear that Irene's skills will not find fertile ground – that she will always be perceived in the job market as a 'maid' and that she will be forced to revert to an earlier desperate life, a life of cleaning my metaphorical toilet bowl.  

But in my head, I see things a little bit differently. Logically, I think that the sustained chance to 'do business', in all sorts of ways, has created a different Irene. I think that the creative studio she and Patrick are opening in Thembisa stands a reasonable shot at success, based on their combined commercial and creative experience. I also think that if you lop off the money she has spent getting to work and back every day, she doesn't actually need to make that much to equal her current salary. The same applies to Patrick, who has the added benefit of having significant experience as a solo artist and supreme skills with paint, glue, beads, a drill and a hammer.

My head says the beneficial experience of real work (work that involves a steady increase in skills) means that both of these people, who I have come to love like family (like family who work for me, of course – let's not over-estimate the boss/employee vibe) are better equipped than they otherwise might have been to grasp the awfully difficult equations of life. The equations that are almost impossible to broach when all you ever do is scrub toilets or mow the lawn.

Personal motivation and life equity.

Supply and demand.

Cost of production vs. a reliable profit margin.

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The reality, as always, will be a foreign land. There is no way of knowing, for any of us, if what we intend to achieve with any relationship will actually pan out. But if things do go south and our goals are not reached, does that mean we all would have been better off for not having tried? For not having risked?

I'd like to think not.

Looking back on our long and adventure-filled ten years, I feel that it's often the process, not the end-result, that delivers the true benefits. That it's the engagement that matters – the attempt to connect, emotionally and practically. That's the point, I think, Jay Naidoo was trying to make.

But to start that engagement, and then to follow it through authentically... well, everyone involved has to take enormous risks. We have to risk our own hearts.

And that's no easy thing. DM

  • Andrew Miller

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