On Being Domesticated

The name of my blog is “who needs who?” and the question is nowhere as pertinent as in the relationship between home owner and domestic worker.

I grew up as a child in the 1980’s, apartheid times. We had two domestics (those days called maids or ousies), one for the kitchen and one for the house. It was typical for a large family that lived in a big house on a farm. As is normally the case, relationships with domestics are respectful and pretty kind, especially if you ignore the subtle patronism and class differentiation. Still ‘people tried and try to treat their domestics nicely, not as friends, but as domestics. Some families even eat with or take their domestics on holidays. Personally I have always maintained that if you are going to pay someone to clean up after you, that person should not be your main target as reconciliatory friend. The fake friendships between employer and employee is almost worst than just ignoring each other, cleaning and paying. Nevertheless some people view themselves as their Domestics’ Jesus and if they want to buy the odd grocery or pay school fees for her kids, then its ok I guess.

Since returning from Mozambique and moving into a small flat in Johannesburg, I ‘inherited’ a domestic worker who came to clean my flat on Wednesdays, for R120 per day. So for most of the week I did things myself, but on Wednesdays Josephina would wash the floors and windows, dust, wash dishes that accumulated from Monday and iron my clothing. For a while Josephina simply disappeared but the sent her daughter as a replacement and I actually ended up preferring the daughter as a domestic, since Josephina had a long history of breaking things by accident, turning all my white clothes into yellow (washed with orange UJ shirt) and not showing up quite often. Then as suddenly as she appeared, the daughter made way for the mom again. Josephina strikes me as a good and proud person. Although my Wednesday stint was her only source of income, I always imagined myself to see a bit of resentment on her face. I felt uncomfortable as a young brat to have this dignified mother working in my flat. I also felt weird when my black friends visited my house on Wednesdays, seeing a mother, cleaning up after me. I never felt that way when white friends visited.

To be clear, despite the situations in other countries, in South Africa most domestics are black and most white people have domestics working for them. It is ‘normal’. I have heard this situation mentioned in conversations about racism and inequality. Yet, any reflection is quickly followed up by a ‘its not about colour its about money, rich people will always have domestics in a country where 40% of people don’t have jobs’. If all the domestics get fired, think of all the job losses and suffering, seems to be the standard justification. And then there is the ‘my time is worth ten times her time, so I will rather use my time to make money, then pay someone to clean my house.’ In South Africa, the status quo of domestics is so normal it is hardly a talking point. Yet, for me it has always been a reminder of apartheid, one thing that never changed. Even if the domestic, will choose herself to rather clean up after a white than to be unemployed, it still bothers me.

So, in December 2012, I decided to embark on an experiment, I wanted to see if I could clean up after myself. If I could cope without a domestic. Despite being busy and getting home every evening after work at 20:00, could I manage to keep my flat clean, shirts ironed, dishes washed? Well, so far so good. Honestly, it is nice to walk into a flat that has been ‘magically transformed’ by a ‘little angel’, but the rhythm of cleaning instead of watching TV is also pretty rewarding. In this experiment of mine, I see many contradictions and paradoxes. That is why, although I am happy to say I am a white that does not have a black cleaning m toilet and floors, I do not just do this for good reasons. I like knowing where I put my stuff, I like not having anything broken by accident, I like not having someone else’s mother and wife being my ‘paid slave’.

So what about poor Josephine who was fired? Am I not cruel to let her go? In anticipation of this question, I decided to keep paying her, even if she was fired. That at least puts a different spin on the experiment and conversation.

How long will I continue with this? Not sure. Am I doing good or am I being silly? Not sure. The only thing I know is that every second I spend making my bed, washing my clothes or dishes, cleaning the floor, etc. I get a chance to reflect on myself, on our country, our history, luck, responsibility, dignity and solidarity.

I dont judge anyone who has or who does not have a domestic. I am not sure if I am being selfish or brave. I am not sure I Josephina is honoured in this or not.

I wonder, and to be truthful, for over 15 years I have wondered if I will be able to be someone’s domestic? Really. Will I have the humility, patience and servitude to clean up after a bratty family for a year? This thought have made me wonder how a sabbatical of domestication could work for rich people? It might be more useful that going to a cloister or ‘the mission field’ where you remain a hero and in charge. Most Christians say they want to ‘serve’ like Jesus, but few want to be servants, few want to be domestics.

If I had more ‘tomatoes’ I would take 6 months and be a domestic at a family I don’t know and who don’t know me. That sounds like an interesting journey of self discovery. So who knows, maybe I am currently in training?!

4 thoughts on “On Being Domesticated”

  1. On a practical note, what I find hardest about not having a domestic, is ironing my duvet! What a time consuming shlep. Washing floors and windows is a bit tedious too, but the rest i quite enjoy: washing dishes, washing clothes, ironing shirts, keeping things tidy… it fills the gap left by Dexter, Game of Thrones, etc

  2. It’s May and Im still at it. I like being my own domestic, although when work gets very busy and i return home after 21:00 at night things pile up and thats not nice. Yet, every time i focus and do my duties, i feel chuffed and proud and in control. I’m often tempted to get someone again, but thus far Im still paying and still cleaning my own house, dishes and clothes.

    Vamos ver

  3. THis experiment is very serious… Inevitably I get busy and tired during the week and the flat get messy. Dirty bath, dirty mirrors, dirty windows, dirty counter tops, dirty dishes, dirty floor, dirty clothes, messy bed, messy cupboard, messy life!
    Then, when I have a free Sunday like today, instead of catching up on work admin, I catch up on my space. Once I start, what seemed daunting, soon becomes therapeutic, and with each completed task, satisfaction, pride and chuffedness flows back into my mind.
    One thing I dont want to think about, but that I can’t get out of my mind, is that my domestic, who stopped working in November, is still getting her salary every single month, and in seven months she never bothered to thank me or even send an sms. Now, I am clearly not doing this to get a thank you from her or anyone else, but it bothers me that when she worked here, and I underpaid by R20 or delayed by one day she would immediately send and sms to remind me! Now, no sms. What saddens me about the situation is that it reflects different understanding and levels of life-skills. Nothing can replace the ‘little things’ we learn from our parents and friends. I could have stopped paying her, using the lack of gratitude and courtesy as an excuse. But if Josephina had all the skills I had, she would probably not have been my domestic in the first place. The whole situation, leaves me sad and not really feeling great. I miss the feeling of walking into a spotless flat. But I also like the things happening in my heart, mind and body on this Domestic Sabbatical….

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