Maid in South Africa
Are white employers of domestic workers in uppity suburbs aware that they suffer from "The Help" syndrome?
White people can walk their dogs, but not their children. Or that’s how it seems, at least.
I stepped into an alternate universe the other day, which literally stunned me – a dog park filled with domestic workers and white babies. I may as well have been a fly on the wall from the movie The Help – set in the United States in the 1960s. There were no dogs, just a community of maids and children who were not their own. It is not the fact that this collective was at a dog park that was surprising to me, but the fact that I was certain that just an hour later residents of that same community, all white and upper middle class, would be at that same park with their dogs. Maybe none of the people with dogs actually have children, I thought.
Nevertheless, the contrast was strange to me. This particular scene may not be news to you, but it was to me, especially when I considered the transformation of that same park later in the day.
For the sake of clarity and to avoid a massive generalisation, let me say that this is not true of all white people. And maybe it is just more shocking and appalling to me because I grew up in a community (with domestic workers) where your parents or a family member either found the time to take you to the park (or a graveyard, in my personal experience) or not. And then when you were old enough, you just made your own way there.
No one else was responsible for your playtime.
Dogs did not really factor into the equation much, and if they were present they just sort of went along. And then we moved to a white community made up of smallholdings, where white people did the same thing; took their children and dogs for walks. I had never seen or experienced a distilled situation like the dog park environment before. It was new and, to be honest, a little bit sickening.
The argument about domestic workers having to raise other people’s kids is not a new one in South Africa. It has not been for a long time. I’ve noticed that Parkhurst is buzzing, at any time of day, with isolated incidences of the Ferrari of prams being pushed around by employed domestics (worst still, it is also filled with any number of domestic workers walking pets that don’t belong to them either). Owners and parents off at work for the day I assume, or seeing to pertinent social affairs, or … dare I say, driving their dogs to the parlour. And while we’re on the topic of work and employment, I take nothing away from the fact that the domestic worker environment does in fact provide jobs for many South Africans.
But even that leads to important and often labelled “controversial” themes, such as the treatment of these workers, fair pay, options for protection and empowering workers who contribute to an economy and communities no less. But for the purposes of this endeavour, I will focus on the community aspect, which is twofold.
It’s unlikely that the domestic workers of Parkhurst convened and decided that every Friday at about 4pm they would all meet with their employers’ children. I did not have the guts to go up to them and ask if this was the case. But my companion on the day made an important statement – it builds a sense of belonging. They were all there, doing the same thing with children who were not their own; living those same experiences. At least this was a way for everyone to come together. More than an opportunity for a few privileged children to go outside and play and, presumably, not have to interfere with their parents’ dog time, this was an opportunity to connect, converse and share with one another.
I wondered how many of their employers or residents of the community had paid any attention to this. Were they just okay with how all of this panned out? I also wondered whether, if these domestics had not had this opportunity, this shared-communal time, they would ever dare to have this conversation with their employers. “No, Mrs X, I don’t think it’s cool that I have to walk your child to the park, or your dog for that matter. It’s bullshit, do it yourself”. It’s unlikely.
I also find it highly unlikely that any domestic worker has ever agreed to care for someone else’s child so that their employer can spend more time with their dog. Does this sort of thing just come with the territory? I’ll concede that in many ways I’m jumping to conclusions here. But again, this is not a scene from The Help circa the 1960s. Maybe that’s the problem: it should be. Maybe then it would spark an era of civil rights action for domestic workers in South Africa.
Perhaps there are those out there who enjoy this sort of thing. Maybe there are stipulations for extra pay if and when needed. At the very least, perhaps there is some sort of conversation between employer and employee about these kinds of arrangements prior to employment.
If it’s just an assumption or an expectation that a domestic worker should have to assume responsibilities like this, are their employers at least aware of how extremely unreasonable it is? Is there any sort of conscious consideration for this? Are any of these residents alarmed by any of it at all?
Are you seeing this?
If there is any truth to my initial unwarranted assumption whatsoever, it begs asking: why can you walk your dog, but not your child?