In one of the suburbs of greater Johannesburg lives a friend of mine. His name is Marcus. One beautiful day I paid him a visit. I arrived just on the hour I was expected. I rang the bell and waited. A minute later, the gate opened. And as I stepped in, a woman’s voice greeted me.
“Good morning! You must be David!”.
“Good morning! Yes, it’s me David. And you are…”
“Oh my name is Nonzuzo. Welcome, David! Marcus has been expecting you”.
We exchanged a few pleasantries before she led me to the living room where Marcus waited for me. A woman so friendly, so welcoming, with an infectious smile in the face. I wondered who she was. It turned out she was the maid. The domestic worker. Indeed, as soon as I walked into the living room, she got back to busing herself with the chores — cleaning, washing, ironing… you know the drill.
I had been in the house for a quarter of an hour when the phone rang. Marcus answered. His conversation with the dude on the other end dragged on and on and on for a considerable period of time. I figured it must be some serious business. Why else would he have the phone glued to his ear for a long while just a few minutes after welcoming me to his crib? I never asked him what the whole dang conversation was all about. And I never will. You see, I’m the kind’a man who minds his own business. Some things are better left alone. You know what mean? In any case, while he spoke on the phone, I decided to acquainting myself with the maid. And oh boy! Am I ever glad I did! We had an intense conversation. It turned out that hanging out with her was the most profitable thing I did in that house.
Nonzuzo is a native of the province of the Eastern Cape. She came to Johannesburg in 1993, floating in the euphoria of the newly found freedom. Apartheid had been officially laid to rest. Like most blacks, she was fully optimistic. Highly hopeful. So expectant. The liberation movements had been unbanned. Political prisoners had been released. And the corner stone, the one the builders had rejected, the man himself, Tata Madiba, had been released. Free at last! Free at last! Thank god almighty, they were free at last! As would say the great King, Jr. And the sweet icing on the cake — the exiles were coming home. My precious black brothers and sisters coming in from the cold at last! Greeted by ululations sounding and echoing all over the land. A new dawn in the land. Something was about to give. Great things on the verge of happening. Nonzuso could feel it. All of it. It wouldn’t be long before everyone had his own house. His own job. His own money. It wouldn’t take long before everyone had a life. A water tap. A flushing toilet. A fair shake. A shot at good education. A shot at getting rich. Yes, getting rich. Why not? “They told us we would all be rich”, she said. Such a common tale throughout this continent. I wondered whether she was aware. The rest of Africa turned its sight south. Saw the euphoria. Thought to itself: Oh please… been there, done that… and for what? Damn cynics!
It turned out that for Nonzuzo and many like her, the dream never came true. Oh, it was worse than that! For the dream became a nightmare. As our conversation continued, she went on to vent about her share of this nightmare. “Can anyone call this freedom? Is this freedom? Look the hell around and tell me if this is freedom. If you see freedom, then fuck it! I don’t want any thing to do with it”
“Sister, I don’t understand? What are you talking about?” So she started. She started with service delivery — “In the hospitals, home affairs, post office, you name it, there are long lines, long waiting times, and no one cares. People are rude in government offices.” If you thought domestic workers were stupid, think again my friends. This woman was informed. And she was on fire that morning.
“Nkandla Village is madness”, she said.
“What the hell is that”, I asked?
You see, I had just arrived in the country. Ill informed about the current, the hot, the sexy and the depressing topics of the land. I had no clue about the apparently infamous Nkandla Village, which by the look of things turned out to be an object of Nonzuzo’s intense anger. She schooled me on Nkandla scoop.
“Nkandla Village is the president’s kraal in Kwa-Zulu Natal”
“A kraal? Do you mean a kraal for the president’s cattle? Why would a kraal for the man’s cattle anger you?”
“Yes, a kraal. He’s building such a big kraal for himself. Inside the kraal he’s building mansions for himself; for his wives; for his concubines; and for his tens of children. He stole R200 million to build all that”.
To give some idea of the kind of money this is, in today’s exchange rate, R200 million is more or less $20 million. If she’s right about this, you can imagine what kind of a kraal the statesman has been building for himself.
“These people are corrupt. I’m telling you. R200 million for one man? That’s sick! Ba hla bodwa [They eat alone]. They don’t want to share. Meanwhile we the people are struggling. We want our kids to have good education. But we can’t afford it. We have no money.”
And just as I thought I had heard it all, she made the most shocking revelation. “I miss the good old days of apartheid”, she said. I cringed. I recoiled. I felt ashamed, to be frank. Just couldn’t believe my ears. Was I really hearing that? A black woman in South Africa having fond memories of apartheid? The present must be hell. Freedom must be unbearable. I had to hear more. I had to have an explanation. So I asked for one. And she obliged:
“Back then you knew what you would get. You knew what to expect. No lies. No deception. We had reliable schools, hospital, post offices, government services and so on. Today it’s all gone with the wind. It’s all been eroded by the corruption of this black government. If you go to hospital, you’ll die waiting. And no one gives a fuck about it. The nurses are witches. Go to post office and you’ll find them sitting and chitchatting as if they don’t see you. But they see you. They see you need help. But they don’t care. End of the month they get paid. Same thing in all government places. Same thing with politicians.”
An indictment greater than which no other can be uttered against the political class. Are they listening? Or busy in the binge to hear?
Just as I thought I had heard the worse words proceeding from this woman’s mouth, she unleashed yet another load: “I hate working for black people. Black people are the worse. I’ll take a white person for a boss any time.” I heard that and I just wanted the ground under my feet to crack open and suck me in. Thank god I was able to pull myself together. And regained my cool pose. “But, Nonzuzo, why do you say such things?” Now get this:
“David, I don’t know about where you come from, but black people in this country are the worse to work for. If you are a maid and your boss is black, god help you, I’m telling you. They’re rude. They’re nasty. They’re bad asses. They treat you like a dog. Like you’re nothing. They don’t respect you. They abuse you. They yell at you. They insult you. They can even slap you on your face. They want you to know who is the boss. Everything can go wrong with a black boss. Basically we black people have no respect for our own people.”
That’s a domestic worker’s perspective on life in her own beloved country. Every hour, minute, second, is really an entry point to a world of possibilities. An entry point into someone else’s eyes. An entry point into an I-Thou relationship with others. This woman forced me to exit myself — she destroyed my invisible wall of affect and intellect — so that I stood there, not just in front of her but right on her social positioning, right in her shoes, right in her vulnerability, and saw the world through her eyes. That, my friends, is a lesson on living. And a lesson on dying. She taught me how to live. And how to die. As Cornel West teaches us, every time our preconceptions, prejudices and ignorance are destroyed, or at least unsettled, we learn to live a new life. The death of our self.
- ANC self-destructing through greed – Phosa (iol.co.za)
- Seeds of apartheid still in bloom (iol.co.za)
- Analysis: E-tolls and the matter of governing without consent (dailymaverick.co.za)
- Thuli Madonsela on Nkandla: An election puzzler for the ANC (dailymaverick.co.za)
- ‘Blaming apartheid, race does not wash anymore’ (praag.org)