Maid is mama

A little girl with her South African maid

She arrived with a smile on her face, hips for Africa and the biggest, most extraordinary, summer hat on her head. My mom knew straight away. This was the lady. There was something different about Winicia—something maternal and lovely but also, a quiet confidence. And her hat.  

 Winicia came from Katlehong; the township that neighboured our suburb, Leondale (in Germiston). I guess the word “maid” is offensive—conjuring unavoidable connotations of white privilege. Or have I been living in England too long, where an absentminded glance at someone is enough to offend with the force of an evisceration straight out of the Middle Ages. “Domestic worker” then? Although that’s not quite right because, in South Africa, a maid was not merely a cleaner or “domestic worker”—the terms are reductive. “Nanny” maybe…but also, no; still not right. For many white kids growing up in the eighties and nineties, a maid was a mama; a surrogate parent to the children she looked after.  

Winicia had her own family, her own children and grandchildren (one was called Johnny—he was cute and ate the cat food from the bowl in our kitchen one time; I ate dog pellets…on purpose. Don’t judge—they tasted good) but for her relations to survive she needed work; and for many black mamas, work came in the form of employment by middle/upper class families that needed affordable childcare (and their houses cleaned).  

Some maids lived with their white families and others commuted on overcrowded, dilapidated taxis to and from work each day, usually made easier by a lift to the local taxi rank by white “madams”, where workers returning to the townships congregated in a raucous of conversation each afternoon to await transport. Maids were often usurped into family life and given a self-sufficient room on the property—at the back, for the privacy (exclusion?) of the maid and the convenience of the family, who could call on their extracurricular family member when she was needed after hours (to babysit or feed the dog at the weekend) and she would be paid, of course.  

As an adult, I’ve tried to understand the weirdness of this fundamentally transactional relationship between a maid and her employing family, the business of which is tranquilized by the very real attachments formed between all concerned. And what it must have been like to jump between the two familial contexts—white suburbia and…the township. Pretend family, real family. Or is there such a thing—does circumstance not allow us the privilege of forging our own ‘families’ in this great overlapping world in which we find ourselves. Sure. Except, what did our Winicia know of ‘privilege’ other than the privilege of work and food—survival. The privilege of survival.  

Adult brain aside, what I knew back then was that Winicia was beloved. She was soft and round and kind; comfortable and dependable, and she cleaned my room. She also shouted at my brother, a lot—“Kea u bitsa, Christoph!” as he escaped all manner of responsibility or reprimand by sprinting away, long legs in full motion and mop of unruly hair trailing after. I used to think that Winicia’s exclamations translated as, ‘Come here now! You are in trouble. BIG trouble. Stop running away. I am coming for you, Christopher, and I am telling Madam!’ She definitely sounded pretty mad. According to Google translate, South Sotho to English, Winicia said: ‘I am calling you (—add my brother’s name)’. I must admit, I am slightly disappointed. I shouldn’t have quantified the memory with reality—it was far more exciting when my brother was being chased by a justifiably furious black lady wielding a wooden spoon. Wait. There was no spoon (or was there?) and was she not, quite simply, exasperated. What’s the better version? Anyway, I’d not have messed with Winicia. 

Not all the maids I’ve known loved us (forget apartheid, I blame Christopher—he be cray). One of them stole our Easter Eggs when were on holiday. She was fat—I am sure she ate them all. I often wonder if Winicia remembers us. When we moved from our Germiston home, she came with us but one day, she was no longer our maid. I am not sure if it was the distance or perhaps her family needed her to be their mamma, not ours? Did the sacrifice become too much? Maybe she got sick, or worse. I don’t know.  

 

Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

 

SIDENOTE: After I wrote this story I shared it, asking readers reply with their own ‘maid is mama’ stories…and WOW!—So many magical memories poured in. Here are some of them (and thank you to YOU, wonderful South Africans, who’ve allowed me to publish these here, with the intent that others will be inspired to remember…as a reminder of the pain (these mamas who sacrificed their own families to look after us) as well as the beauty. (I would love to hear from you, dear reader, so please do share your own memories in the comments below. Thank you!)

Desiree Pereira – I wish I could put into words the love I have for our beautiful Paulina. She looked after me from a baby. My mom had helped her start her own business and it was time for her to move on from us. One day, years later, we got a call she was in hospital; a diabetic coma. I sat by her bed and cried my heart out begging God not to take her but she was my earth-angel and God wanted her back.

Dorita Correia – Lydia was our African mama. She had a heart full of love for us and she loved us fiercely, like a surrogate mother. She was with our family for many years and was loyal to us. I eventually grew up and left to live in the UK. When I had my first child, my mom told me that Lydia asked if she could have a photo as she looked at my daughter as her surrogate granddaughter too. My heart melted. Lydia had her own family but through circumstances looked after ours. She has now passed but I have nothing but love in my heart and fond memories of our beloved Lydia.

Bella O’Mahoney – We had a Mama but only for a little while; I think my parents couldn’t afford her for long. Her name was Elizabeth and I remember she got R10.00 per day back in the 80s. She had the most beautiful smile and was so gentle and caring.

Eljana Swart – My beautiful Mama Dinah. Such a beautiful, strong, caring women. My childhood is filled with memories of her and my mum screaming with laughter all day long. Ke rata mama haholo.

Kerry Van Tonder – We had Thandi; she came to work for us when my sister was born and stayed for 25 years. She taught me how to clean and iron. The best domestic EVER, loving and loyal.

Megan Janse van Rensburg – My mama was Maria…the quiet force that ran our home. She arrived six months after my oldest brother was born and she and my mother were the same age. She was originally from the Transkei and back then if she didn’t ‘live-in’ or was found without her pass she would have been sent back! You see, she came into our lives in 1967 when my parents moved into our childhood home on the Bluff in Durban.

Little did she know that ‘living in’ would mean she would help raise eight kids, never mind three of her own! I can’t recall if she was married yet or married later, but she lost her husband young and her kids grew up on the farm for all those years, which was and still is the done thing for so many.

She took it as her duty to bring us all in from the car when we came home from the hospital the first time. She guided us with a firm hand and made sure we were all safe. Her discipline method of choice was a slop…and yes, WE DESERVED IT! We were horrible children! We often ‘borrowed’ the garden gnomes from next door and placed them outside her khaya. We found frogs and put them in her room. Childish pranks that seemed so innocent at the time but I now realize were AWFUL!

She showed the boys to iron when it was time for them to go to the army or navy and amazingly got through washing and ironing for 10 people each day. She also never got the clothes mixed up! Maria made more than beds for us; she made our home feel like home. She was the glue that so often held my frazzled mother together.

A devout Catholic, she always went to wena suzie mass (the zulu mass on a Sunday) and was a part of the fabric of the community. We didn’t know this until she died but she used to send money to the church back home on the farm. She made sure that there was communion for the rural church, which is quite amazing when you think how little she was paid back then.

Her youngest daughter found herself in the ‘family way’ and asked if it would be ok for her granddaughter to come live with her when the time came. She not only looked after us but her granddaughter too. Nonto grew up in our house as much as her own.

Maria was sadly and tragically killed in a taxi accident and she left a hole in our family that is still felt now. She was such a huge part of our lives and is engrained in the fabric of our family.

Jennifer Kriel – We had Lizzy and she was AMAZING! She was like our second mom and I remember watching the ’95 World Cup with her…sat on our loungesuite, drinking tea and screaming for the BOKKE! Not long after she retired, she sadly passed away. At her funeral, her family had us sit on the stage (the funeral was in a big hall in their township) as we were seen as family to them. It was so special. They even asked my Dad to make a speech. Loved her so much.

Janine van Achterbergh – Mama Polina. Also wonder where she is now. My parents used to make me sit and eat all my vegetables before leaving the table; they would all be watching TV and I was left at the kitchen table with cold vegetables to finish. But Polina was my Hero! Polina came in after finishing her dinner and always felt sorry for me and ate my vegetables for meI actually remember her doing it sneakily, too. I wasn’t telling anyone and neither was she.

Natalie Erleigh – We had Johanna. I have such respect for these beautiful, unbelievably strong women. I feel such guilt and sadness for their circumstances despite me being so little; it’s just not fair.

Tracy Ann Lynn – I don’t have many childhood memories but I do know the maid/nanny who looked after me while all my brothers and sisters were at school gave me my love of Kwela and Marabi and African music in general. We shared a house (that was an old ranch that was separated into a semi-detached) with our cousins and they had a maid and a gardener too; and I remember sitting under the guava tree together sharing lunch of pap and sheba and ‘morog’ and listening to music. My family don’t quite get how I can’t stop tapping and dancing when I hear any of it or similar more modern music.

Jo-Anne Justus Kennedy – I had Minah. My mom was a single mother and Minah looked after us. When my mom remarried when I was 8, we couldn’t take Minah with us to our new home. My mom said the people who bought our house said Minah could stay on but I have no idea if they were good to her. She was already old so I know she won’t be alive now but I’m grateful for her presence.

Tami Coxall– We had Winnie (in Zim) who was amazing. She came to our gate and couldn’t speak a word of English, except ‘job’. So, my Mom, who spoke fluent Shona, gave her a job as my nanny as I was newborn and my mom had my two older brothers to look after.

As she stayed with us she learnt English and taught me Shona. She had no children of her own as she was barren, so I was like her daughter.<

My Mom sadly passed away from cancer when I was 6, and Winnie stayed with us until I was 12; honouring the promise she made to my Mom. She taught me how to cook and eat her food on the fire, to knit using bicycle spokes, to bargain at the market and so many other things! She would often tell us she had dreams of my mother talking to her, which we found comforting but not sure how true.

Then, when I was 18 and about to leave the country to move to UK, she travelled four hours with her last bit of money to come and see me because ‘my mother had told her in a dream’ that I was leaving.

I never saw her again but a few years ago I had a vivid dream and a very strong feeling that she had passed on. We were so connected, and she will always be a surrogate mother to me.

Debbie Holloway – I loved our Elsie, she was with our family for over 30 years.

Kim Saw – I LOVED our Ginty! She was our other mom; what she said went and Lord help you if you did not listen! She brought me and my sister up and started working for our family when my mom was 16. She was there with us through, births, death, birthdays, parties, good and bad times. She was everything and more! I still think of her every day and wonder if she’d be proud of me now.

Mel Wilson – Ivy looked after our family 35 years. She retired but always came to visit. Even when I moved to London she would come from the farm. She taught me to speak Zulu and years later refused to speak English to me as she said she taught me Zulu, and out of respect for her I did my best to respond. She sadly passed away a little while ago.

Nikki Anne Cohen – Oh my goodness, yes, I have such fond memories. We had Mita who joined our family when we moved to Pietermaritzburg, when I was about 8. She was great; not the maternal loving type of maid thoughbut she introduced me to Tracy Chapman and she used to plait my very long hair into tight little plaits that would give me crazy headaches. She was with us for a few years; she had her own young son and they both stayed with us. One Christmas we all got bicycles, even Mita’s son. When she left, Gloria joined us and she was the bestso loving and caring and happy. But then we left Pietermaritzburg. I often wonder about them, still to this day 30 years later. It is difficult to explain “the maid” to someone not from this time; we were a regular, working class familymy dad and stepmom had four kids between them and they both worked full time.

Colleen Walker – I often think of Sara who was our surrogate mama; she was with us from when I was just a wee tot until we moved from Joburg to East London when I was a teenager. She had her own family so it wasn’t possible for her to move with us. I’ve often had some angry thoughts towards my parents that they never kept in contact with hercouldn’t even tell me her surname so that I could try and find her. It was a different world back then.

Nicola Kettle – Petty was amazing, she and her two kids lived with us. My parents divorced and Petty stayed with my mom; she was such a support. She used to run a little loans business to raise money and I remember she used to hide her cash all over the house. Petty kept a ledger in a book, people turned up at the back gate to pay her back. Very savvy for someone who was only educated to a Standard 3. Because of this she was so focused on her kids finishing school; they were similar in age so we played all the time! Petty cooked the best samp and beans and always made extra for us. She was strict and would not pick up after us kids. She is retired but she is in contact with my mom. Petty’s son has been such a support to my recently widowed mom, helping her around the house. He runs a property maintenance business and works on the properties my mom rents out. It’s wonderful; she gives him a lot of work and she trusts him 100%. He always looks out for her.

Bev Tanner-Tremaine – I remember our Sarah. I remember being strapped to her back with a brown tassled blanket and her going for walks around the neighbourhood with the other local ladies. She couldn’t speak English so we grew up speaking Zulu to her. She walked me to and from preschool every day and I distinctly remember one day bursting into tears as I arrived at nursery because I realised I was still in my slippers. she walked home and got me shoes to change into. I loved her more than ever that day. We moved house twice and she moved with us but the third time we moved, her husband wouldn’t allow her to do the commute. We never had anyone else work with us again after she left. There was no replacing. I remember picking veggies in the veggie garden with her and her moaning at my sister and I when we picked things at the wrong time. I remember sitting in the laundry room with her, me playing with my dolls and toys when she was doing laundry. The mielie meal porridge she’d makeHUGE bowls of it.

Mandy McInnes – Anna found my mom when I was not quite a year old. My parents both had to work full-time and needed a reliable carer for me and, a couple of years later, my brother. She taught me to speak Zulu before I could speak English, as she couldn’t speak much English. She carried me on her back when she went out to visit her friends during the day. My nickname amongst them was ‘bididee’ because when I wanted Anna to carry me I would say thisnot being able to say ‘baletha’ (sp?). Anna would let us get away with mischief and took such good care of us. She’d fetch us from pre-primary, walk us home and then make a delicious snack for us. My brother always managed to convinced her to make ‘slap chips’ (he had Anna wrapped around his little finger, she couldn’t say no…), or the three of us would sit and enjoy some of her ‘putu’ (pap). She had such a good heart. We loved her so much. She stayed with us until I was in about Matric and then she went on to retire. My parents helped her financially, as the allowance she received wasn’t much to write home about. She lived in a very rural area and we lost touch with her after a few years. Think pre mobile phones etc. Some years later my mum found her daughter, who passed on the sad news that Anna had passed away. I was really sad, as I’d have loved to have had her at our wedding ceremony. She’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Natalie Conaghan – Ah, our perfect, Portia! Just the best and loving human in the world! We lost contact with Portia when my mum died but can you believe; Portia found my sister and I on Facebook after 27 years! It’s so amazing to be reconnected after all these years!

Ruth Holcombe – Our nanny was Virginia, GinGin for short and was really like a second mom. Miss her a lot but we are in contact via WhatsApp. It’s a pleasure to know her since I was a toddler. She always said nice things to me and about me and called me beautifulshe is so special. I’ll love her always as my African mom.

Cherise Stevens – Yes I had a mama; her name was Rebecca. She lived with us in her own little house in our yard, where all her children lived as well. She practically raised my sisters and I. She was with us since before I was born. We grew up with her children and I will forever see her as my ‘black mother’.

Tracy Annandale – My mama was Cicelie Mthetwa; she was the constant in my life after my mom died. I think of her most days and hope she’s proud that I make my bed the way she taught me.

Brigitte Gerhardi – Our Gladness passed away 21 July 2020, a couple days short of her birthday. A sad day. She was part of our family for 45 years. I remember how she used to take us to the local café with her, and how when our pets died she cried right along with us; how she used to smuggle the leftover food from our plates so we didn’t get in to trouble; how she looked after our dogs and cats and birds and most importantly me and my family. She was a strong lady who took on the tokoloshes and wasn’t afraid for anything. Rest peacefully. Hamba kahle. Gladness Mdletshe.

3 Comments

  1. This is a beautiful stroll down memory lane. Then you. It’s brought back my childhood for maids and domestics who looked after us. They were surrogate parents and loved us, plated with us, disciplined us, fed us whilst our parents were at work. There were some rouges but mostly they were lovely caring people whose work it was to look after children.

    1. Thank you for reading Janice! Our country is a complicated one and I love that even though so many of us are scattered we are united my memory and context.x

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