I miss apartheid, she said

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.

Taken and donated by Guinnog.

Taken and donated by Guinnog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


23 thoughts on “I miss apartheid, she said

  1. Thanks for this very interesting story – certainly a refreshingly honest and to-the-point perspective. I guess politics has more in common with grocery shopping than one might think…. if everyone starts to shop at Pick ‘n Pay and the competition goes under, despite fancy slogans and flashy ads, the customer service worsens and everyone ends up paying more for less. Okay, so the point of my rambling … we need both Pick ‘n Pay and Checkers?

    • Thanks, Nicole, for your comment. Clearly, the woman is experiencing buyer’s remorse. Your Pick ‘n Pay and Checkers analogy is worth thinking about. So let’s say we buy from both retailers. It may turn out that both are part of a cartel that conspires and fixes prices late at night when most of us are sleeping, dreaming, making love and babies. Wake up in the morning to realized we’ve been screwed! Surfaces can be deceptive, if not treacherous. Especially politics.

  2. “Badla bodwa” Matsinhle, if you’re not politicaly connected in Mzansi it’s gonna be hard for you to find a job in government even though you have the required qualifications. The person with the connections will get the job with or without the qualifications and this is somehow discouraging to us students who are doing studies related to government cause of the corruption practiced there.

    Eye opening story Sir. Thank you

    • Thank you, Thembelihle, for reading it and commenting on it. Glad you found it a little useful. Being politically connected as a prerequisite for social inclusion is a serious problem all over the continent. Hopefully, when the youth take charge of the leavers of power they’ll act differently, they’ll act in the interest of the public, and they won’t build their personal kraals at the expense of the public. Thanks, DMM

  3. All script Matsinhe,Nonzuzo tells the story as it is. jst working 4 a black person with no ubuntu will be hell bt Nonzuzo other black ppl wuld hv U as family @ their home. whites are the same sisi it depends what kind of a person you working for. So truth full as the wish of it was still the apartheird era___yes due to good magement bt not having boards nd different service doors,it’s all up to your vote nd how do you play the game. So as the saying goes do not blame the game blame the player,our votes worth the Nkandla kraal so what do we do about that Qha mntase khaya

  4. Wow I am speachless.I often wonder about all these well to do black people.They never seem to get involved in helping the poor black.The ones with fancy cars ignore the poor begging at the robots.Often I see they ignore the car guard as they pull out the parking and drive off in their fancy car.After this womans storie it is making sense.But why are they voting for these people?That make no sense.Could it be fear that drive them?

    • Thanks, Martha, for your entry. And don’t get me started with the fancy car types. Something must have happened in the new South Africa, because in the struggle days people were involved in so many volunteer projects, helping the poor and oppressed without expecting anything in return. It was pure unbutu in the air. Now ubuntu is in the trunk of the bling ride my brothers and sisters are enjoying now. I can’t pretend to know why people vote for the same people again and again and expect different results — that’s what Einstein called insanity. From that point of view, South Africa is insane! Why not? The history so far has been insane. But I still believe there is a lot of ubuntu at work among the people. It’s just not newsworthy, so we don’t hear about it.

  5. What a story. I take my hat of to people like that and you Matsinhe. If only we could have a president like her or you just think how nice and rich this country could have been. The way I see it is if this carries on there wont be much left in a few years from now. Even Madonsela would do a thousand times better. Thanks again for the story.Wow\

    • Thanks for your kind thoughts, M Mouton. Indeed, “it is if this carries on there wont be much left in a few years from now”,as you say. When the people’s reserve of patience and tolerance has been exhausted and cannot be replenished, hell will break lose and we’ll all lose. I was going to say let’s pray it doesn’t happen. But I caught myself selfish instinct. People must free themselves whether I benefit from it or not.

  6. Unfortunately I also experience the same that white employers treat their employees with respect and dignity.

    I met a young man that works for a black man he receives R1000 per month and was paid 5 months ago.

    I asked him why didn’t he report his boss and to my shock he replied, “he will fire me and get someone else to guard to place and he will get away with it because he is black.”

    What a pity and after thinking it through I knew that, that is exactly what is going to happen.

    It has been a month since I saw the young man and still if I had the money I would steal him to come and work for me, but I only have a R1000 to give him at this stage but I would be punished harshly for not paying the minimum loan.

    Everyone for himself and the devil for the rest…

    • I am sorry to learn about this young man. The future cannot be bright in a place where there is a huge reserve army of labourers like him competing against each other on the race to the bottom. To me it is testimony that fact that the capacity for inhumanity, cruelty, exploiting another human being for one’s benefit knows no colour, no racial boundaries, no ethnic frontiers. So is the capacity for humanism, ubuntu, treating others with dignity and respect. Being black is no synonym for morality. Let’s get this straight. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Neither is being white, Matsinhe.

        In all humanity there is the good and the bad – why? And what is the contributor? What makes these ten good and those ten bad (irrespective of race)?

        Is it possible for a nation to change their code of conduct, their morality and principles?

      • So you get my point, Lizemari. Human nature is capable of both good and evil. Human nature is colourless. Human fantazy assigns colour to humanity. Neuroscientists argue that we humans have so far used about 10% of our brain. If they are right, then our capacity for cruelty and compassion is really unimaginable. I don’t know the causes of either evil or good among us. But some societies are structured in such a way that it’s easier to be good than to be bad and vice versa. Usually where hunger and death and the fear of both still colour people’s everyday lives, the social and self-restraints with which people steer their conduct toward sympathy with, and empathy for, other human beings tend to be weak and easily broken. The guy who begs on the traffic lights is driven by fear of hunger and death to do what he does. So is the guy in his fancy car, because when he looks at the beger on his car window he sees himself in shitty shape. The guy begging on the intersection reminds the guy in his fancy car that he’s balancing on shit and it can collapse at any moment. The misery he sees on his car window frightens him. He wants nothing to do with it. He shuts his window. Loctks his door. Speeds off. Doesn’t look back. This fear is dangerous. We need to do something about it.

  7. First things firsr … The apartheid ideology was wrong and we must do all we can to never go back there.

    Someone said to me one day about problems in a large local corporate that “the tone is set at the top”. So if we are concerned about the problems in our country we should look at the example set at the top … Corrupt leadership where if a MEC or head of Department in Government wants to seriously tackle corruption, he or she issimply replaced. We hear a lot of tslk about service delivery and weeding out corription, but we don’t see any action. Unfortunately I am not so sure if it will matter which party governs, poleticians are all the same.

    But then there is the Xhosa saying that goes something to the effect that you must first vlean in front of your own house before worying about the state of others’ houses.

    So the change starts with each of us individually … How we treat others regardless of race, how I talk to the petson behind the till or in the post office or hiw I treat my own workers and labourers.

    We need to realise that all of us in this beatiful country basically have the same dreams regardless of our obvious differences. Each of us need to start the change where we have the ability to influence and I do believe that over time we will make a difference.

    But then we must stop metely complaining and start acting, start voicing our demand for better service delivery without adding to the problems.

    • André you’re right about the moral nature of apartheid: it’s dead wrong no matter how you look at it. Unfortunately, often When people are frustrated with the present and desperate for survival there is no guarantee a sober perspective will be upheld. Survival issues are very emotional issues for all of us. It’s your life on the line. You’re too involved. Detachment is impossible. So people will think all sorts of things such as “I miss apartheid”, and will act all sorts of ways like voting for the same group of people that drives them to miss apartheid. In terms of active citizenship, I believe the SA citizenry is active. The question is whether their course of action is effective,whether it produces the desired results. Like you, I believe that each of us has the responsibility to treat others with the utmost respect and dignity. Thanks for your thoughts

  8. Freedom is a hard gift to handle.
    The same thing happened with the eastern european countries where many people say now that it was better for them during communism. Was it better? Of course not! It was much worse. But the people had so many expectations from their new found freedom and they were disappointed because maybe they were not prepared to deal with it, to make their own choices and to build prosperity for themselves. They did not (and do not) know how to use this freedom in their best interest, how to choose their leaders and how to actually speak up for their rights. Because freedom means that you have to take responsibility for your own choices. So it is easier to look back and say “oh, back then everything was just handed over, I didn’t have to chose and thus I never failed”.

    • Omega, what you say resonates with the post-colonial experience all across this continent. In Mozambique the older generation which lived through the colonial times found independence difficult to handle. They’d say: “back in the colonial days things were better, we could afford buying food… and could buy this and that”. I find it eye opening that in the former Soviet union states this is sort of thing is also common. Freedom has never been free I guess. You must pay a price to get it. You must pay more to keep it once you get it. Thanks for sharing that story.

  9. I Have my own story. About 10 years ago while driving to drop off a man who I was trying to help by the name of Alfred, said this to me … “My life was much better before the government changed. I felt safe in my house and I always had a job and always managed to feed by family. All that has now gone and he broke down and cried” I cried for him…

    • Mike yours is a sad story about a buyer’s remorse. Citizens must seriously ask themselves what they want with their government. Not reward failure with pleasure of more years of looting and pillage. Rather punish failure with expulsion and prosecution of wrongdoing. The life we lead is not sustainable. Sure, SA is the richest country in the continent. But even SA has its limits, its breaking point, its one blow too many. I wonder what happened to Alfred. Do you know?

  10. Thank you for your article. It makes me so sad that the people who fought for equality and a better life for ALL South Africans, can turn around after just a taste of power and fuck us all over.

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