For the woman who makes your bed

  • Geoff
On the day Nelson Mandela died in 2013, a crowd gathered on the pavement outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Black women, among others, arrived from every direction, lit candles, sang and danced in their own language, dominating the neighbourhood. Their sadness at losing Mandela was huge, but equally palpable was the mood of optimism for the future he made possible.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 15, 2019

It’s common knowledge that the country has not done justice to Mandela’s vision. Even ratings agencies such as Moody’s can see it, and the citizens who are fleeing elsewhere.

Most black South Africans are no better off today than when Mandela emerged from jail. Many people have benefited little from democracy, even if they have freedom of speech, which doesn’t put food on the table.

In the United States, another great person with a dream for the black diaspora died on 5 August. Nobel Laureate in literature, Toni Morrison, attempted to do through her literature and personal greatness what Mandela tried to do for black South Africans, namely eliminate the racism that tormented them.

Yet, today, there is a resurgence of the racism towards black Americans that she abhorred.

Platitudes praising all kinds of women are everywhere during what has been dubbed Women’s Month, but one category has received insufficient attention, namely the black women who look after white families, and have done so, thanklessly, for decades.

There is an abiding image of old South Africa of groups of nannies sitting on the pavement outside the homes they work in, clad in aprons, with doeks (cloth) on their heads. They often had their legs stretched out straight in front, and white children with them.

As with male ‘servants’ – as they were referred to by white people – they lived in small ‘servants’ rooms, usually at the back of the house, sometimes with special gates from the street.

Have their lives changed since black women sang on the pavement outside Mandela’s house in 2013? It depends on their employers. But, in general, to the shame of rich Jewish South Africa, many are still not paid a living wage.

Women who once were tasked with carrying white people’s babies on their backs while their own children were neglected in townships have been “repurposed” to be so-called carers for the elderly. Their families in rural areas are still poor, and their sons and daughters still don’t have jobs.

Disillusionment in the country has gone so far since Mandela’s time, that even mentioning his name today in some political quarters will be seen as naïve. Incredibly, there are even people who refer to him as a “sell-out” because he chose at the end of apartheid to hold secret negotiations with the very people who wanted to leave the country with their money.

There are legendary black South African women to be celebrated in Women’s Month. But the humble black women who raised their families during apartheid, often alone while their husbands lived in migrant hostels elsewhere in the cities, in the mines, or other places, bore the brunt of the struggle. Isn’t it time their employers recognised them – and in the case of those who don’t – paid them properly?


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