The chores that made us

Saturday. March 24, 2.30 am. Just came back from dinner with my friend Stephanie. We covered a lot of ground. Most importantly my theory about children and home chores; domestic intimacies between different political bodies.

About her situation as a white woman and her relationship with her black domestic worker, she says she is too scared and embarrassed to have a conversation with her. To even instruct her, lest she takes on the role of the madam. And the black domestic worker from Zimbabwe is also afraid of her. She laughs nervously when Stephanie tries to explain or ask her not to come to work late.

As a child, Stephanie says she didn’t really have chores. After school, her dirty lunch plate would simply disappear from the table. She never had to help with the dishes. No wiping of the counter tops. When she bathed, she did not know that the bath needed to be washed afterwards. She simply let the water out as comfortably as she let her panties fall to the floor without the requirement to wash them.

Taking out the garbage? No.

Making her own bed? No.

Ukuxikixa — washing her clothes by hand? Not a requirement.

Learning about how different our realities were is a significant moment in our friendship.

She never set up the tea tray. Yet this was as an art form we coastal people learnt from our coloniser ancestors.

She was shocked when I explained to her the ritual art of ukuphunga —drinking tea or coffee. When setting up your tray for serving tea or coffee, a tray with ornate handles is always better than a plain plastic one. Use a starched floral tray cloth. Put the saucer on the tray cloth. Place the cup on the saucer, then a spoon neatly on the side of the saucer. Sugar in the sugar bowl. A fancy sugar spoon inside the bowl. Milk warmed up in the milk jar. Make sure the milk jar is wiped clean and dry. Boiling water in large pot. Coffee decanted from the family-size tin of Ricoffy, Koffiehuis or Frisco. On a matching side plate, place either Marie Biscuits, Lemon Creams or Eet-Sum-Morbiscuits. Serve.

In the small towns and urban areas, tea and coffee drinkers mostly kept their favourite beverages in the cup. In my rural area, the grandmothers, aunts and cousins would always pour their coffee or tea into the saucer and sip from it. One relative, uSis Khanyisa, says her grandmother used to pour her tea in the saucer and make the kids line up in a queue for one sip each. Sis Khanyisa says she would always open her throat the widest in these moments. My father’s mother, uMaRhadebe, would ritually pour 11 teaspoons of sugar into her tiny English rose cup and immediately pour the tea with milk in her saucer and slurp it from there.I discovered that this cooled the tea much faster than sipping it from the cup.

When it comes to iSintu, which I interpret as the daily practice of uBuntu, it created and maintained the framework of chores so that we children would automatically know what was expected of us at certain times of the day and days of the week. We had roles in our small domestic community. Roles that rendered us responsible and independent from our parents for things to do and ways to be.

For example, a list of chores that my three sisters and I had from Mondays to Thursdays:

Hand-wash our school shirt and socks even though from 1997 we had a washing machine.

Chop vegetables; onions, carrots andpotatoes. Antialways choppedthe cabbage because it was difficult.

Wash, dry and pack away the supper dishes.

Sweep the kitchen and dining room floor.

Make lunch for everyone going to school the next day.


Practice piano.

In between homework, supper and the dishes, we would watch TV.


Cook supper. Wash dishes. Sweep the floor. Rent videos from Videoland. Eat chips.

Saturdays. Oh Saturdays!

On some Saturdays we had derby days at school so we would wear our school uniform once more and our parents would take us there or Kim’s mom or the chess teacher would fetch us for competitions at Stirling.We also had to attend sports matches at our school or debating sessions at a school in Qonce (King William’s Town) or Komani (Queenstown).

On the Saturdays we did not have school derbywe would:

Make coffee in that elaborate Victorian setup and serve it to our parents who were still in bed.

Take out the duvet cover(the pink and green one that mama bought in a catalogue) to have it washed in the machine.

Sweep our whole — CARPETED —bedroom.

Tshayela inkunkuma (sweep the dirt) out into the tiled passage.

Tshayela the whole passage all the way to the kitchen.

Tshayela iVisitors Bedroom.


Tshayela ekhitshini nasePantry.

Clean the bathroom and toilet.

One of us would make breakfast if the other was cleaning the bathroom.

Wash the breakfast dishes.

Tshayela the lounge/TV room. Watch some cartoons while you clean.

Move the couches around. Take the centre table into the next room.

Mop the tiled floor.

Put the chairs back.

Neatly place the embroidered chair-backs onthe sofas.

Place the doilies in their rightful places on the tables.

Put back the porcelain dogs, ducks and chickens that keep the doilies in place.

Dust around the Medieval tea sets, trophies, school photos and fancy glasses in the room divider.

Eat breakfast while listening to the Top 40 list on the radio.

After breakfast, vryva (polish on your knees) the stone stoep at the main entrance.

Take all of tata’s shoes from his cupboard and neatly place them outside. Today, just like every Saturday, they are going to be polished. All 26 pairs. Different colour tubs of Kiwi polish. Different brushes. One dirty rag to apply polish on all 52 shoes. A less dirty and softer shining rag. With your tiny hand inside the giant shoe, first dust the dirt off the shoes with a dry brush.Then apply polish on the shoes. It has a distinct smell.Wait.

The swimming pool needs cleaning. Pour the chlorine in. Fish the leaves out. Switch the Barracuda on. Sweep the tiny leaves around the pool. Sweep the entire yard from the top of the gate to the bottom of the pool. The broom is heavy for your 12-year-old arms. Shhhhp. Shhhhhhp. Shhhhhhhp. Shhhhhhp.

Rest on the stairs on the stoep. Drink a cool-drink or water.

The shoes have been baking in the sun. Take the less dirty cloth and stick your hand inside the shoe and polish in circular motions. This will take up to 90 minutes.

Sit down. It is now time to bath or swim.

Mama and tata are at a funeral or something that has made them trust us enough to do the chores unsupervised. Rest. Watch the rented films.

At 6pm you will make a cup of coffee for yourself. A mug full of full-cream milk. You don’t dilute it with water because your mother is not there to shout at you. You put more coffee and sugar than is allowed and pilfer biscuits from your mother’s scarf shelf. Make popcorn.

You fall asleep on the couch until you hear your parents hoot for you to open the gate.

You start preparing supper. You cook. Phaka. Eat.

Dishes. D…D…Dishes.

Sweep. You watch the rest of your movies.

On Sundays you relax after white church. Your parents are still at black church.

Auntie has the weekend off. You cook Sunday lunch and rest for the rest of the day.

You watch the 8 o’clock movie until it is interrupted by the weekly family prayer session, which always begins during the climax of the movie.

You sleep, but not before you and your cousin fight over who has farted in the blankets.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

ANC integrity body wants Ingonyama Trust gone

The party needs to review laws to ensure they do not prevent rural people from having security of tenure

Social pact needed for Marikana renewal – Adam Habib

That pact needs to be engineered by civilians, not government, says the former Wits vice-chancellor

Cosatu details plans for next week’s cost of living strike

The trade union federation is using protest to demand urgent action from the government to avoid an ‘economic collapse’

‘Relieved’ to hear from police on sexual assault allegation, Godongwana...

The finance minister confirmed he had been approached by the police about a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual assault

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…