Micheline Tusenius
Micheline Tusenius

Helping stir South Africans’ consciences

That most complex economic relationship — between domestic helper and employer — is well scrutinised in The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times bestselling book that is also a film with the same name. The Help depicts the usually fraught relationships between women who worked as domestics and those in whose homes they worked in the American Deep South in the 1960s.

No South African can read the book (the better option) or see the film without being struck by the parallels between 1960s life in Jackson, Mississippi, and South Africa. The era described was before the passage of civil rights legislation in the United States; South African society has obviously, and thankfully, changed greatly too since the height of Verwoerdian apartheid.

Viola Davis, who plays the helper Aibileen in the movie, has recently received another round of publicity due to her Oscar nomination for “Best Actress”. Responding to criticism of being “reduced to playing a maid” and “turned into a cliché”, Davis says one is only “reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanise a character”.

This insightful comment from Davis makes me wonder how many South Africans still haven’t humanised the women (the vast majority of helpers are women) working in their homes, raising their children, cooking their meals, washing their clothes, vacuuming their carpets, and scrubbing their bathrooms.

In present-day South Africa, have enough South Africans looked beyond the stereotype of the women following the occupation of “maid” in their homes to appreciate the human beings within? How differently do South Africans now treat the women of colour who work in their homes from the way they did in the 1960s? How much has this most intimate relationship changed in the New South Africa?

Certainly the terminology has changed. The politically sensitive way now is to refer to someone’s “lady” or “helper”, rather than “maid”. People now know their helper’s surname — although most employers probably did too in the 1960s due to the endless paperwork for the pass laws. Most South Africans hopefully now also know the names and ages of the woman’s children.

I know of many cases where the helper’s children are now living in the “servants’ quarters” with their mother. These children now grow up with the employers’ children, living intertwined existences, playing with them and their friends every day. In many of these cases, the employers are also paying for these children to attend neighbourhood schools. I know too of cases where employers are funding the construction of a house for the helper, sometimes in a nearby urban township, sometimes in the ancestral home in the countryside. There are also instances with which I am familiar where employers are covering their helper’s medical expenses, specifically the cost of antiretrovirals. Many employers play the role of banker to their helpers, with a virtuous cycle of money regularly being lent, repaid, and then lent again.

Yet are these types of mutually supportive situations the exception or the rule? It is difficult to generalise, but I regret to say that I think these types of examples are, unfortunately, more unusual than typical.

Part of it might be generational, with “old school” South Africans having similar relationships today with their helpers to those they had before 1994. When Aibileen and her friends in The Help comment on how much they love their charges when they are babies but then they “grow up to be just like their parents”, this South African imagined that many helpers in South Africa would concur wholeheartedly with these sentiments.

The extreme slights and pettiness of earlier generations have hopefully become the rare exception in South Africa today, although my gut tells me this is not the case. As referenced too in The Help, I hope no South African kitchen still has separate cutlery and crockery for the exclusive use of the long-suffering women of colour who help raise and give love to the children of the house. And how about helpers’ use of bathrooms in families’ homes, the bathrooms that they clean so thoroughly and regularly? The Help offers some fabulously wry commentary on this aspect of the relationship.

The relationship of domestic helper and employer is one of propinquity. It is a professional relationship that also has to be personal. It is a legal relationship characterised by a power imbalance. It is a relationship that should ideally be based on mutual respect and trust. And in South Africa today, there are security implications if such trust is lacking.

As Viola Davis reminds us, to work well, the relationship also needs to be humanised. I urge you to read The Help — and then see the movie afterward.

Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington, DC with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa often. Visit Micheline’s blog, Watching in Washington, here.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • So what exactly DID happen?
  • Pandora’s box has opened…again!
  • The Place of Sara Baartman at UCT
  • It is time
    • Stephen Browne

      Unfortunately the average middle-class attitude to cleaning (especially toilets it seems) typifies for me how people feel about ‘the help.’ Somehow cleaning a dirty toilet is beneath them – “I draw the line at cleaning other people’s poo.” I have had to deal with this attitude in employees that are otherwise lovely, caring people.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Well the opposite happened in my family, and the families of my friends.

      This is South Africa NOT America.

      In all our cases, going back 4 generations, the children of the “helpers” got educated into professions by the employers of the “help”.

      In fact in the Western Cape, among my family and friends, black and brown domestic workers were much better off than their men – who had no such support from their employers for their children.

      My uncle, the Boland farmer, had to make a rule that ONE of the children had to qualify to have the worker’s house by being employed on the farm – they could not ALL live there and become qualified as teachers/doctors/nurses

    • Graham Johnson

      I think that the good things that you highlight are more general than absent. My ‘maid’ has her own bed-sitting room, toilet and kitchen, all fully equipped. She frequently has visitors. I call her by name. She has worked with us for over thirty years and I furnish her family house and help fund her other needs like family education and medical expenses.

      We enjoy a really warm relationship, at least, I think we do.

    • Micheline Tusenius

      Thanks for the comments. Lyndall, how your family and the the families of your friends treated those in their employ is inspirational and exemplary–and unusual. Sadly, I really don’t think its representational. Our horrible history strongly shows that your type of relationships were not the norm. The key is whether we have all learned from the past and whether we are doing better going forward.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      In the Cape it is the norm – which does not make it the norm in the rest of the country.

      But remember in the rest of the country the blacks got Homelands, later Bantustans, where no white could own land, and these WERE half the agricultural land when originally divided up.

      There was no Homeland for the browns.

    • Skerminkel

      You are probably preaching to the choir here and it is not a white madam-black (whatever euphemism for a domestic worker) thing anymore.
      But, thanks for the heads up on the movie. Now I know to give the guilt trip a miss.

    • Lennon

      The last housekeeper that my parents employed offered to help out with my 21st even though my aunts had everything under wraps.

      She wound up getting just as tanked as my friends and I did. \m/

    • Robard

      The irony in South Africa is that even working class whites somehow find it necessary to employ a maid. In this respect white women are far too lazy, excepting maybe those who have turned their backs on the noble profession of housewife to pursue some boring career in answering telephones or some such. And the fact that so many children now enter school without knowing their ABCs is of course due to them being abandoned to the care of nannies at a critical stage of their development.

    • Skerminkel

      Geez Robard, its not like you are generalising or anything, hey?
      The fact is that employing someone to work in your house gives money directly to a family who would otherwise have very little or no income.
      On an economic level you might argue that the money would be spent elsewhere, but it would then probably pass through some retailer (if you spend it on groceries or luxuries). That way it ends up in the pockets of share holders. They pay a huge chunk of it over to the guavamint an they, in turn, are extremely ineffective at getting money to the poor.
      Why not cut out the middle man?
      To sooth Ms Tunesius: your philanthropy does not excuse you from treating your employee(s) with dignity.

    • benzo

      Any statistics available on average “treatment” on a scale of 1-10 asking a string of related questions from both, workers and employers??

      People refer to the “black-omatic”, some just jokingly others by habit. Some refer to the helpers “helping themselves”. In the same meltig pot we find the touching stories between the employer families and the worker family.

      However, all is anecdotal and my expereince is different from many others. Responses will scatter along the spectrum which has not been properly defined in the first place.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, one can’t compare SA to the US when talking about the working conditions of domestic workers. In New York and California the domestic workers were protected by these states labor laws in most southern states that was not the case. In 1960 in Jackson, Miss. a domestic worker was paid $18 dollars a week and in New York the same worker would be paid $60 dollars along with their social security paid. The same can be said about California the workers were protected by these states labor laws. Mississippi in 1960 was the poorest state in the union and it’s still the poorest state in the union and the workers are not protected in this state. However, I might want to say being a domestic worker is a job and the workers shouldn’t be raising their employers children. If the employer want somebody to raise their children they should put them in boarding school.

      By the way the open secret in California is black employers for domestic are the worst to work for because they are so demanding.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, in the US all of this has changed all one has to do is dial a maid they will send a crew to your home for a fixed price. After the home is cleaned the crew will go clean another home. The advantage of using dial a maid you don’t have to worry about paying SS and taxes for these people.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      That is exactly what I meant. In my circle of friends and family the black/brown domestic worker raised your children so you could work, AND you reciprocated by paying to educate hers. It happened more often than not – but is not acknowledged.

    • MLH

      I was a child in this country from 1959 and lived at home until 1964. My mother had no help during this period, despite the fact that she had MS. Thereafter, I went to boarding school and my father later got someone in to iron once a week. The only people who’d previously worked in our home were RAF batmen (junior officers) and I’m pretty sure she treated the ironing woman the same way she had them.
      I didn’t have domestic help until I was 30 and then only one day a week. One was great; several were not so good. My son did not grow up with a nanny, although I kept up the one-day-a-week thing.
      We’re still at it and our helper came yesterday. I have already washed the back porch floor this morning, cleaned the loo and given the bathroom basin a good scrub; all things she clearly overlooked yesterday. I’ve also wiped down two entire rooms (one the kitchen) because they were covered in ants…perhaps the cloth she used was sugary. She’s the only person in the house who uses sugar.
      So no, I don’t pay for her granddaughter’s schooling; I do occasionally buy her extra groceries; she gets her bonus in January so that her husband doesn’t drink it away over Christmas and New Year; her daughter has worked here at times, she has AIDS, but is healthy and on ARVs.
      I know there’s a world out there I’ve never been part of, but is it really necessary to generalise to such an extent?

    • The Creator

      Defining expectations for whites downwards is getting pretty impressive when it reaches the level where you can erase the stigma of apartheid by not excessively exploiting the maid.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Creator

      Do you have a real name that you are not ashamed of? Why don’t you use it?

      Or are you trying to hide what you write from your boss/spouse/collegues/friends?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      We have “Dial a Maid” and “Dial a Gardener” here as well.

      I am sorry, but I still prefer the old system where the maid and gardener were part of the family and looked after together with their children.

      Which is what upset me when I visited my upper class aristocratic family in the UK in 1965. They were toffeee nosed about apartheid, but their maid’s husband, the gardener, was not allowed past the kichen.

      Just because they were white not black there was a difference?

      They did not like me much either! I took a whole bunch of grapes to eat, and did not cut off three “korrles” with the silver sissors, ate large chunks of Stilton with the port, and asked if their dogs had fleas (not a topic for discussion in Britain apparently).

      I was a white savage from Africa in their eyes.

    • Mike

      I was in a bit of a reverse situation, I am a white man.
      In the late 90s as a result of being unemployed and destitue, an ex-colleague of black mine kindly employed me as a char and allowed me to live in a room in her office.

      I was treated with respect and, despite the fact that I “cleaned the toilets”, I was always treated as an equal.

    • benzo

      “As Viola Davis reminds us, to work well, the relationship also needs to be humanised.”

      Is that not true for all relationships???? That is only human! I do not need to see a film on that.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The best poetry on this topic is by William Blake in the “Innocence” and “Experience” poems.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, there is nothing wrong with being a domestic worker as long as your employer is willing to pay for your services. Some employers want a cook, maid to clean the house and a nanny to raise their children but, they can’t pay for this services. In the US for a long time many of these employers never paid for their domestic workers Social Security.

      I like the system in Germany the employer has to pay the domestic and give them a six week vacation every year. In the US many of these domestic worker are not paid like the ones in Germany.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      I agree. When I was in my 20s and living in Joburg, a friend’s ex-maid came and begged me for a job. I told her that as a single woman I really did not need a maid, but when she told me how she was being exploited by her employer, a policeman, because she had no pass, I took her on anyway.

      I lived in Auckland Park then in a house with only a coal stove for heat and cooking. I really missed her at the weekends – I had no clue how to work that stove!

      She had the weekends off – which she had NOT had under her previous employer!

    • Pingback: Helping stir South Africans’ consciences | Institute for African Affairs()