Redefining ‘Madam’

Growing up, no black woman worth her salt would take kindly to being referred to as a “Madam”. The term Madam was reserved for white women who had a black domestic worker. Being called a Madam was linked to unsavoury connotations such as laziness (unwillingness to perform supposedly women-like duties), incompetence (inability to perform everyday household chores) and bossiness. Most devastatingly, being referred to as a Madam suggested that you acted like you were white – a comparison that would evoke disdain among the majority of black women, pre- and post-democratic South Africa!

I was raised by a then-housewife — for most of my childhood, her existence was centred on the upkeep of our household. My mother believed that no one could do a better job than she could at cleaning her house and cooking for her family! My mother stems from a generation that equates idleness to laziness. Whenever I attended funerals, on Friday nights, it was a norm to witness the family matriarchs meticulously prepare mouthwatering food in those 25-litre black pots with dedication until Saturday morning and still supervise the serving of food after the funeral. The same women would wash the dishes (this was before styrofoam packaging became popular), return all the hired and borrowed equipment and spring-clean the bereaved home. This was their badge of honour. 

Any mature woman not involved in these practices was judged and reprimanded (and not always in a dignified manner)! One’s refusal, or even worse, inability to participate in these gender-affirming practices would earn one the categorisation of a woman who “does not have hands” or as expressed in Setswana, “mosadi o senang matsogo”. Symbolically, this saying means that such a woman is lazy and essentially useless when it comes to domestic chores – as crude as it sounds, your fully functional hands are considered a waste of body parts.

Years later, I noticed with alarm how dreadful cleaning, doing laundry and cooking had become. Was there really a scientific need to do this every day? I started panicking.

Have I become … a Madam? My, oh my! A new bride (makoti) who doesn’t have hands … the disgrace! 

A perception exists in black communities that participate in the practice of lobola that a makoti must prove that she is deserving of the lobola money with which her husband’s family parted. The markers that serve as indicators or affirmation of money well invested are centred on proving that you will be able to take care of your spouse and by extension, his family. Essentially, a makoti needs to prove that she is a woman with hands through the diligent and pristine maintenance of her household with her own hands: cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, interior decoration and, lest we forget, the successful bearing and raising of children. As a wife, the state of your home, children and husband is a direct reflection of “your hands”. 

I stop panicking. 

Perhaps I am a Madam – just without the traditional Eve. 

I submit for your consideration alternative perspectives of Madam and mosadi o senang matsogo.

While we continue to be pre-occupied with crucifying women (of all races) for being Madams, I think we overlooked something. 

Perhaps if we looked beyond the Madam’s skin colour and stopped projecting our cultural standards of the perfect woman/makoti onto the Madam, we would realise that madamhood is about options and most importantly, exercising those options. The Madam who never wanted children but had to birth them in order to gain society’s approval as a wife exercised her option to acquire childcare services in a bid to simultaneously preserve her sanity and marriage. The Madam who wanted it all – a career, a Top Billing house and lifestyle, children and husband exercised her option to hire domestic workers to tend to activities that don’t add to the attainment of her dream.  

What if being a Madam is code for having the privilege to decide which activities are worth your time; which activities are aligned with your goals and dreams?

I am cognisant that not all of us have or had access to options. But does that warrant labelling other women as Madams? Some of us have such options but are too ashamed to explore them for fear of social alienation. 

I consider it to be counter-productive to equate a woman’s worth solely to the results she can produce with a mop, pot and womb.  Perhaps she is a tactful and level-headed public speaker who will intervene during those heated family meetings? What is she is highly qualified and experienced professional who can advise family members about their career trajectories?  Wouldn’t it be a blessing to have a makoti who can professionally organise and execute family functions and still help to peel the onions and carrots for the chakalaka? 

Why must her worth be restricted to one ability or inability?

Perhaps it is time to dismantle our attribution of the titles “real” makotis or “real” black women to women who engage in energy and labour-intensive activities – whether they do it voluntarily or out of obligation. 

Perhaps all women should be Madams – Madams who irrespective of their circumstances are empowered and encouraged to consciously decide which options serve them best.

My suggestion to rethink the title Madam does not intend to belittle, sideline or silence the painful and traumatic experiences black people survived at the hands of white Madams, particularly during apartheid. Neither am I oblivious to the reality that some Madams of all races, colours and creeds continue to abuse their employees. 

My call is for a reflection on the categories with which women smear and burden each other – categories such as Madam and mosadi o senang matsogo, which by implication restrict a woman’s significance in society to domestic duties.

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Lorato Mokwena
Dr Lorato Mokwena is a co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Language and the Global South/s. Her research interests include orality, indigenous knowledge(s) and the linguistic landscape of sparsely populated areas

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