Note: One of the stories published on Our Fireside Stories – “Maid is mama” – is an outworking of the 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. As I allowed my mind to wonder back to the nineties and thought about our maid Winicia and how much we loved her, and how kind she was; there is an underlying pain as I was forced to confront the tragic reality, that these women, many of whom were mothers themselves, gave up their lives and families to look after us—to ensure the survival of themselves and their own.
So many people responded to my story with beautiful, special memories but as white South Africa looks back on the joy of childhood and the black mamas who are so much a part of our hearts and families, it’s important to remember and acknowledge the cost…
This is Tracy’s story…
My daughter did a school project about apartheid when she was 10 years old, in 2005. The assignment was for children to take the role of reporter and interview their parents and grandparents about their lives as 10-year-olds living under apartheid; they designed the questions themselves.
My daughter asked me:
What did you think about apartheid?
… “I didn’t think about it when I was 10.” (I was embarrassed to admit.)
Did you have any black friends?
… “No, I didn’t see many black children; I only really saw grownups who worked as maids or gardeners in the houses and shops, or at school.”
Did you have a maid or gardener?
… “Yes, everyone I knew had a maid and a gardener.”
Where did they live?
… “In the ikhaya; a room separate from our house.”
Didn’t the maids and gardeners have children, and a husband or wife; were they all in one room?
… “No, they were there alone; their children lived far away with their aunty or granny.”
Did you ask why?—That must have been horrible; if they never saw their own children. Did they see them at the weekend? (Her dad worked away a lot but was home most weekends so I guess she understood it like that.)
… “No honey, they only saw their children on some weekends and holidays because they lived very far away and it cost a lot of money to go and visit their family and they didn’t get paid a lot.”
Why couldn’t they live close by? What did you think about it; that your maid’s family was so far away and she was taking care of you?
The words that followed…I remember the look of shock on her face; I answered, “No honey, as a 10-year-old in 1974, I don’t remember even thinking about it. It just was the way it was.”
Didn’t you ask granny about it? Didn’t you ask why there weren’t black people living in your street or town?
… “I think I just assumed they didn’t have the money to buy a house in our area; all the black people I saw were poor.”
Adamantly, she asked, But didn’t you ask anyone, didn’t you wonder? Why would you think it was okay? (I think she was horrified that I as a 10-year-old I never thought and asked questions like she did and was shocked that her now open-minded mother was not objecting to injustice as a young girl, as she thought I should have.)
… “I only really became aware of what apartheid was when I went to university and studied the laws and how apartheid came about when I studied sociology. I never spoke to my parents about politics or how life worked in society.”
She asked, But didn’t you ask your teachers; you always ask me if I asked my teachers questions they can’t answer… Why didn’t you ask them?
I just looked at her and thought for a while to myself… Why didn’t we ask more? Who taught us not to? Why didn’t we talk about it with our friends even? How did we get so indoctrinated that we never questioned the obvious unfairness and blatant injustice of the situation? I answered, “I just don’t know why. Honestly. I saw all the signs at the station – ‘WHITES ONLY’ – and bus stops. I saw the separate train coaches and buses. I obviously knew there were rules but I never asked anyone why.”
We both learned a lot from that school project but what really taught my daughter something was her close friend at school, Lerato Dlamini; who told her that her mom and dad refused to do the interview because the memories were to difficult to talk about. My daughter said to me, “Maybe Lorato’s granny was a nanny in some family’s house and her children only saw them in the holidays.”
I often think about whether other kids my age spoke to their parents about why their nanny lived in the ikhaya and hardly ever saw her own children…
Author: Tracy Ann Lynn
Editor: Andrea Zanin
Photo Credit: Zanele Muholi (Massa and Minah 1, 2008)