The exchange of labour for money is the greatest confidence trick since some dude called Abraham duped his slave into paying for his own circumcision. I don’t know the finer details but apparently it’s all there in the Book of Genesis. Read it if you like. Don’t tell me how it ends. Badly, I imagine.
This is how transactions involving the swapping of work for currency almost always end. Badly. Bosses feel they’re not getting value for their money and employees feel they’re not getting money for their value. So the bosses start firing people who sometimes come back a bit later on and do some firing of their own. Fair play to them.
That’s why, when it comes to people who perform menial labour, I have a soft spot for domestic workers. Despite the way they’ve been treated in the past, they hardly ever wake you up with a cup of tea and a gun to your head. There’s more chance of your wife doing that sort of thing. Except your wife wouldn’t bother with the tea. Unless it was poisoned. In which case she wouldn’t bother with the gun.
Domestic workers have been with us for a long time. I don’t mean in South Africa, specifically. Throughout human history there have been drawers of water, hewers of wood, washers of dishes and fat bastards exploiting them.
Not much has changed over the last four thousand years. Sure, the pay has gone up a bit but the work is pretty much the same. Do the laundry, kill the king’s half-brother, mop up the blood, fellate the first cousins and report to the supervisor for further instructions.
I have a domestic worker and I live alone. I find that appalling. How much of a pig can one person be that he has to hire another entire person to clean up after him? A pretty big pig, as it turns out. Yeah, I’m the prettiest pig in town. In my defence, though, I didn’t go looking for her. She came to me. She knocked on my door one day and asked if I needed help. I asked if she was a psychiatrist. Apparently not.
My instinctive reaction was to threaten to have her arrested if she ever again showed up on my doorstep offering to make my life easier. But then my empathy gland squirted a shot of empath into my brain and I relented. It’s why I can’t go to the SPCA on a Saturday morning just to browse. Of course I’m not equating humans with animals. I’m merely trying to make the point that I am sensitive to the needs of sentient beings of whatever species. But while I’ll happily take in a homeless dog, I’m unlikely to extend the same courtesy to a homeless man. Does that make me a bad person? In a perfect universe, yes. But the universe is not perfect. It’s way too big for a start. And just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you trip over a brown dwarf and fall into a black hole.
“How are you placed for Tuesdays?” I said, as if I were arranging a regular squash game with my lawyer. Not that I have a lawyer. I did, once. His street name was Psycho Syd and he refused to defend me on anything so I had to let him go.
She said Tuesdays were fine. I quickly introduced myself because if you don’t do this right away, domestic workers will call you “boss” or “master” and you let it slide until it’s too late to start over and you spend years and years hating yourself for allowing this strange woman to make you feel as if you were the captain of the Amistad with a brother who personally captured Kunta Kinte.
“Call me Sir Ben,” I said. “We shall reserve my full title for special occasions such as my birthday.” She nodded slowly. “And what, my good lady, is your name?”
She glanced over her shoulder, clearly considering making a run for it. She wouldn’t have got far. I would have brought her down like a leopard on a startled doe and dragged her back to the doorway so that we may complete the formalities.
“Betty,” she said. I snorted and raised the singed remnants of my eyebrows. “Madam,” I said. “I am not referring to the name foisted upon you through neo-colonial imperatives. What is the name given to you by your mummy? Your tribal name.” She sighed heavily. “Nkosiphendule.” I nodded. “Great. Betty it is, then.”
Yes, I am fully aware that the domestic worker industry is traditionally exempt as a subject for humour and that I am treading in a minefield where every mine could blow my career to bits. Not that I have a career. I did, once.
It doesn’t really make sense, though, that the efforts of those who toil in this field should remain off-limits in our daily quest for cheap laughs. After all, thanks to the success of the national democratic revolution, domestic workers are now freely exploited by members of all races.
Every blue-collar worker brings his or her own idiosyncrasies to the job. Plumbers show us their cracks. Electricians talk as if their last job was on the space shuttle. Builders destroy your house and disappear. Domestic workers have their own unique quirks and foibles and we would be doing them a grave disservice if we had to leave them off the list of things to complain about around the braai on a Saturday afternoon.
The apex maids, if I may use that phrase without endangering my livelihood, are in great demand. However, they are like unicorns. Unicorns in uniforms. Suburban etiquette dictates that if you find one, you don’t keep her to yourself. Friendships have ended and families fallen out because of one person refusing to share.
Most, however, fall somewhat short of apex. Not a few fall into the Movers and Breakers category. Nkosi-Betty is a Breaker. Her first couple of Tuesdays were marked by the sound of plates and cups plummeting to their death. In normal circumstances, the hurling of invective follows the smashing of crockery. But on Tuesdays the impact is followed by an eerie silence. If a soup bowl breaks and there is no sound to acknowledge it, perhaps it never existed. Or perhaps, the next time I open the cupboard and find one instead of four bowls, I will think I must have taken the other three for a little outing and inadvertently left them on a park bench or at the beach.
Then came a Tuesday when it was as if a poltergeist had snuck into the cutlery drawer and was tossing knives and forks about the kitchen. So now I leave the premises before the demolition derby can begin. I often have nowhere to go. There are some Tuesdays that I sit at a bus stop and wait for six hours to pass.
Some people get Movers. I think I’d rather have a Mover than a Breaker, to be honest. They keep you on your toes by shifting things to new and interesting locations. Okay, sure, if you find your car keys on the toilet roll holder and your underwear folded neatly in the microwave, she might be more than just a Mover. Quite a few Movers are also frustrated interior decorators and you’ll frequently find the layout of your lounge has changed substantially by the end of the day.
Then there are the Groovers and the Takers. When you get home you’ll find your DStv is on the gospel channel and your radio is set to Ukhozi FM. That’s when you know you have a Groover. You tell yourself that she combines the dancing with the cleaning rather than simply kicking things under the furniture as she pirouettes from one room to another.
The Takers generally help themselves to whatever they please. They arrive with a small handbag and leave with three bulging plastic bags. It’s not really stealing, though. I think it’s more of a civil service mentality and it’s best to let it slide. Unless, of course, a bakkie arrives to pick her up and a couple of guys load up your bed.
So here’s the question. Would you rather live in a developed country where everything works but you can’t afford a servant, or in a country with a rapacious, corrupt government and a functionally innumerate president but, thanks to a history steeped in violence and injustice, there’s a huge pool of cheap labour available?
And it is cheap. Oh, yes. Thanks to white liberal guilt, domestic workers in the Western Cape are the highest paid in the country. They get an average of R188.50 per day. Or, in terms we can all understand, the price of a case of beer. KwaZulu-Natal romps home in third place with R151 a day, the equivalent of a McMeal and two bottles of wine. That’s more than enough to feed a family of five for a week.
You don’t want to live in the Northern Cape if you’re a domestic worker. Those penurious swine pay their servants R120 a day. I wouldn’t live in the Northern Cape if you paid me that every minute.
Before you decide to emigrate, bear this in mind. A company called Maids of London charges the equivalent of R204 an hour for someone to come around and do a little light dusting. And if you’re going to New York, be prepared to pay between R1 500 and R3 000 a day to have your home cleaned. For that price you’d expect Angelina Jolie in a frilly French maid’s outfit. Instead, you get a belligerent Bulgarian banging on about how the dirty Syrian refugees are destroying Europe.
In South Africa the recommended minimum wage for domestic workers is R10.95 an hour. R10.95. You’re probably thinking this was set by the National Party in 1984, right? Wrong. It was set by the labour department last year. With comrades like these …