Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Give the maid a break!

Aaaahh!!! The festive season is here. Everyone is on holiday except my sister and aunt who are helpers and domestics in privileged homes.

I can imagine everyone in a good mood. They are exchanging bear hugs and expensive gifts. They enjoy long lunches that stretch into summer nights. Let them enjoy the luxury, splendour and privilege they claim to have worked hard for. The centenary year of the ANC has been pretty good to some.

But nobody works harder than my sister and aunt. They are at it from 5.30am until 10pm every day. It’s worse during the holidays. And what do they get for that? A mere R1 250 a month! If they work during holidays or Saturday the rich families may throw in an extra R50. Imagine. Give my sister and aunt Bells, too!

There is no doubt this is a season that brings joyful moments. In fact, if we understood what we needed to do at family level to change this country, we would invite the helpers and maids to bring their families to share in the merriment. After all, we are trying to build social cohesion and a new nation.

But, no, that will not happen. They must know their place. What a missed opportunity. Can you imagine the child of the maid playing with the child of an over-paid corporate manager who has two cars in the garage? It would be wonderful for race relations, the employer and employee. It would be a Kodak moment the children would cherish for ages. Do you remember the movie, e’Lollipop?

But well, for helpers and maids like my sister and aunt, this is the perfect time for you to feel exploitation and oppression. You are denied the right to be with your family and beloved ones simply because you must serve “the haves”.

No one will really want to admit this and lots of privileged families have nice madams and baases. But nobody cares to treat a helper or maid with love and kindness despite the dog loyalty and commitment they show. It hurts so bad and tears my soul apart. Sometimes I am glad my mother — who was a maid and tea-girl throughout her life — has left this world. She died of carrying the world on her shoulders. That is what maids do.

Maybe it is the overall feeling of a well-deserved rest. You know, these privileged folks work very hard. They did not benefit anything from apartheid. Or even BEE, if you like. So, the holiday season is their once-a-year opportunity to let it all hang out. Let them enjoy themselves. You can go to any expensive restaurant in the country around this time to see who is having a good time. It is the privileged and they are mostly … white folks with a few blacks. You can imagine who are the waiters there? It can be Christmas day but they must just be there. And nobody cares how they get to work or home after knocking off at 2am because of far-into-the-morning drinking sessions. The privileged are having a good time!

It does not matter whether the waiters are black or white but they are black most of the time, probably from Zimbabwe. Give thanks to Robert Mugabe that there are waiters who do not get wages but rely on tips. The problem is that many people have allowed themselves to be conditioned into thinking that it does not matter that there helpers, maids and waiters who are still treated like slaves in this country. They are treated like sub-human beings.

The maids have come to accept it as something they have to do. They think it is okay for them to be away from their families and beloved for an extra R50 a day. What’s worse, they believe they cannot afford to displease or betray the madam and her nice family. Nice? Even if you try to talk to them about human rights they still don’t get it. Then one has to resign himself and say, well, they have a choice: to go to work or not to? Or do they? I don’t think so.

At this point, I just walk away because nobody understands or feels the pain. My own sister and aunt cannot be with the family simply because they must go and serve other people, the privileged. The silliness of this injustice, for lack of a better word, never ends.

All I wanted to say is: spare a thought for the helper, maid and waiter. They are human beings, too. They, too, deserve a holiday. There is no doubt that South African citizens want to make the dream of reconciliation and unity to work. Yes, it can! It begins with a small step.

Maybe next year, let all those who have helpers, maids and waiters consider inviting their families for a Christmas or festive lunch. Let the children of the madam jump into the same pool as those who do not know what a bath tub or shower look like. Let us reconnect at a human level through the simple act of sharing a meal. If you want to win the minds of the oppressed, you go through their stomachs. Or give the maid a lift home when she has worked a 12-hour shift.

For my mother who spent her life as a maid, she is now, hopefully, resting in peace. For my sister and aunt and the millions of other men, women and children who are condemned to do menial jobs for peanuts, “i-job i-job”, that is, work is work. Unfortunately somebody must do the dirty work!

Tags: ,

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    • Benzo

      Why are you not go out and help your sister and aunt so they can come home earlier instead of feeding us this claptrap?

      Why not refer to your train/bus/taxi drivers? Your technical staff in the water and electricity supply stations?? What about pilots and ground staff on airports, petrol stations? Defence staff on duty?

      Please, grow up with this “we, blacks, are so done in” attitude.

    • Graham

      Stupid question, but do the employers of your sister and aunt grant them leave days every year (in terms of basic conditions of employment)?

      If no, then press charges against the employers.
      If yes, then I do not understand your complaint.

      The company I work for has a 31 December year end. I do not see my wife much during January. I just have to take my leave at a different time during the year.

      I am sure if you interview the waitrons (as I once was) they enjoy working the festive period as restaurants are full and tips are good.

    • BillyC

      @ Sandile: As a well connected deployed gruntled cadre, you should know full well that your sister and aunt are covered by the Minimum Conditions of employent Act and a minimum wage determination that would earn them R230pd for their 16.5 hour day amounting to a mointhly salary of R4945. The conditions you paint are absolutely illegal and their employers would be prosecuted is you took the trouble to report them.

      If you are allowing them to be expoloited as you alledge then YOU are guilty of gross derelection of responsibility

    • MLH

      Wow! I’ve never, in 61 years, seen a domestic worker work on Christmas day. That’s what the Christmas bring-and-share braai is surely all about? Or why have I made so many green salads for 20 over the years, when ours is but a family of two?
      Perhaps it’s just that we don’t mix in sufficiently rarefied society, having done our own cooking and washing up all my life. On Tuesdays, when our domestic helper comes, I am usually doing the previous evening’s washing up as she makes herself a cup of tea and sits down to drink it before she begins her work.
      You really need to point out to your relations that working the same job on a daily basis pays nearly double what they are earning. But doesn’t include Christmas lunch.

    • Gumede

      I agree with you fully – domestic workers, gardeners etc usually work flat out for very little. And a bonus at this time of the year is very much appreciated as well. I think this is a good call to all people in SA,and makes a small difference in the lives of people who deserve respect and appreciation.

    • Mr. Direct

      @Benzo – you missed out policing and health care – they also don’t have a choice.

      I have worked Christmas day in hospitals, it was part of the job, accepted when signing the contract. No R50 note slipped in my pay slip for it either.

      But I understand what the point of the article is.

      We invite people into our homes to work, they are more than just employees because they know our family, deal with them all the time, know our “dirty laundry”. Surely these employees as a little more special than say people at work who do not share information about our non professional lives.

      What Sandile tries to convey is that on a period associated with good will and family togetherness, surely we can all clean up after ourselves for a few days to give them the opportunity to be with their family. I kinda agree, but it should be the employees choice (in case they need the revenue / overtime).

    • Lisa

      An excellent and practical proposal. SAs must see their workers as human beings and as equals. Until then SA is doomed.

    • Jacques Beyers

      Your sister and aunt is damn lucky to have a job.

    • Adri

      Dear Sandile, I have a so called “maid” every 14 days for 4 hours, I pay her above and beyond what the Labour Law prescribes, in fact almost 3 times more! (that is why I cannot afford to have her on a weekly basis.) Today I have given her an extra day’s money for Christmast inspite of the fact that is financially very difficult, believe it or not even whites struggle to meet their financial demands! I had to cut on personal expenses to do that. Next monday the guy who help us on Tuesday’s in our garden will come and collect his full day’s money because Tuesday is Christmast + a bonus, inspite of the fact that he has already been paid 3 weeks holliday and 3 weeks sick leave. In all my 68 years in a white Afrikaner household has anyone else except our family worked on Christmast. I hope you will in future do some research before publishing an article and not make some sweeping statements.

    • Leonard

      Sandile an anti-white racist like you probably believes that maids who work for black families get treated very well and are paid well too.

    • Dave Harris

      As you can see from the comments Sandile, asking them to treat their maids as fellow human beings is a bridge too far for most privileged South Africans!
      The Irony of it all is that these families are celebrating Christmas with their kids!!! I wonder WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) ?

    • WTF

      We can agree that Sandile’s family has been exploited. Part of the responsibility for this lies with Sandile for not empowering them.

      Most of the maids I know who are employed by within my social circle get the last week of December, and first week of January off as part of their annual leave. They all get 13th cheques, and full month’s pay for Dec/ Jan.

      This is not extraordinary or worthy of praise. It is just good form. Many do it, many don’t. Sandile has yet again elected to play the helpless victim.

    • Sean

      This is an employer / employee relationship, where services are performed for remuneration.

      My wife worked in her employees home office in SA for years and did not expect to be invited in for lunch, after all, she was the employee.

      Waiters and service staff are the same throughout the world and all work during the holiday season for people who can afford to eat at their establishment, not a situation which is unique to SA at all, and definitely not exploitation.

      To compare these to slavery is ridiculous, we all work for someone and have to obey rules and work contractual hours, if we do not like it and complain we may very well be replaced.

      It would be great for us if we could get time off when we wanted, not so sure how this would affect businesses or professions which make money catering for people who are enjoying their off time.

      Anyway, I am off to visit the Christmas markets in Germany, where I will be served in hotels and restaurants by people who make their living off of my need for a break and willingness to pay extra to make it enjoyable. They will probably not be black, but I don’t think it would matter if they were.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, may we all have a happy and peaceful holiday!

    • Benzo

      @Mr Direct: yes, you are right…I did not mention police and healthcare and probably many others who work over these days well or not so well paid.

      Other comments have explained the labour legislation part of mr Sandile’s comments.

      We, 76 and 65 repectively, have a one day a week service. Pay R100 a day and a bonus for special occasions as well as the odd things falling of the table or the clothing cupboards. Only human!

    • Jack Sparrow

      Sandile, I call you on this one. I sense a little embellishment, maybe outright lies like your ANC chums. With your hyper sensitivity about the “exploitation” of workers, I cannot believe that you would not have rushed to the CCMA with a record of these probably illegal injustices, particularly where your relatives are concerned. Why haven’t you? Be the change you want.

    • Bert


      This has to be a generalisation?

      Our ‘Maid’ is in KZN with her family, enjoying a rest and spending her Christmas bonus. Only works twice a week, half day. Her monthly salary far exceeds the salary you claim your sister and aunt are getting. I agree with those who say you should investigate her employment terms.

      In the meanwhile,the ‘Madam’ and I will do the housekeeping.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I have come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything about the labour laws in SA and am beginning to think that my domestic has one hell of an easy life!

      Maybe your aunt and sister should try finding another job if they hate that one so badly

    • Karen

      “But nobody cares to treat a helper or maid with love and kindness despite the dog loyalty and commitment they show.” Yip, thats the apartheid way. Brush every white person with the same black brush.

    • TG

      Excellent piece Sandile, except you seem, deliberately or not, to minimise the role of the black middle class in this kind of nonsense. Being black and moving in black circles I have had the misfortune of listening to people talk about helpers in very derogatory tones. One acquaintance even referred to her helper as a dishwasher when offered assistance to clean up after a braai. Disgusting!

      That being said, I fully support your sentiments and concur that giving your helpers some time off to spend with their families would be a nice gesture. It may just give them the space to be parents to their own kids for a change. The nonsense about the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and sectoral determinations on wages misses the point. Fact is, most people are so desperate that they will take any job even if it pays below what is deemed to be fair value. In general, nobody chooses to be a domestic worker and as such people working in this area tend to be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to demanding their legally enshrined wages. It is thus insensitive to even mention this to dispute the fact that domestic work is generally not well paid thus creating desperate conditions that force many of our sisters, cousins, aunts to work at times they would rather not for that extra 50 bucks and to keep the boss happy. Have a heart and be generous this holiday season. Clean up after yourself. It really is not that bad.

    • Fallon Stringer

      They are at it from 5.30am until 10pm every day. It’s worse during the holidays. And what do they get for that? A mere R1 250 a month! If they work during holidays or Saturday the rich families may throw in an extra R50. Imagine.


    • Lynne

      Well, this is a silly little rant. Firstly, you generalise. You cannot extrapolate from your relatives to all domestic workers. Secondly…you want whities (since this is obviously who this article is aimed at, forgetting that middle-class folk of ohter races also employ domestic workers) to stop employing people in their homes? Lovely…up goes theunemployment rate. And since the ANC seems hell-bent on spewing out another generation of young people who have no other skills than those suited to unskilled labour, this is exactly what we need. Thirly, you’re so connected politically, I’m surprised you can’t find a better situation for your relatives. And, as previously suggested, take their employers to a labour court. Incidentally, both people I employ are off to their relatives in other parts, bonus and gifts in hand. My husband will be working right through the Christmas season. We are not exceptions

    • salim cahn

      Unfortunately some of us got to work during the holidays. That’s life.

    • Alastair Grant

      My wife and I haven’t had a maid in 15 years – before that we had a lady who came in once a week. The main reason is that we can’t afford to pay R5,000 a month – a quarter of my gross income – and my conscience won’t allow me to pay less.

      My friends and family think we’re crazy. “If you can afford R2,000, someone will be R2,000 better off than they would have been.” Maybe. But I worry about having someone in my house who is trying to live on that kind of income. Would she really be grateful for the job, or angry that we’re not paying more?

      The people I feel really angry about are the wealthy, who can afford to pay much more, but don’t do so because they “don’t want to spoil it for everyone else.” I hope there’s a special place in hell for them.

    • Adri

      “sweeping statements” are harsh words, bearing in mind what you said about your sister, aunt and mother and I am sorry I used that words. I can relate to what you say, during the 1950’s my mother-in-law took in the washing and ironing of rich white people in the village to help put her children through higher education, without any electricity in her house . All I want to say is that not all white households are rich and priveliged who, while lounging away during the festive season, someone who should be with her own family is slaving away in the background, and a lot of them do feel compassiion for their domestics and gardeners especially in these dire economic time with food prices sky high.

    • Kreef

      Supply and demand . Over supply of unskilled labour results in low wages . Quality Education is the way out . Is this being provided , that is the question ?

    • Jens Bierbrauer

      A fault and a virtue of mine is that I always see things personally.

      I have never, in my adult life, had a servant. I do have a personal assistant at work but that’s not the same thing. So I do not understand the need for servants. This means that I could never treat your aunt and sister badly because I would never interact with them in this type of relationship. I get the sense, however, that you believe that I, by “taint” of my ancestry, would deal unfairly with them. If it is true that you believe this, on what basis other than a negative generalisation about an entire group would you assert this?

      If you assert this, how is that not racist?

    • Cannabis

      Sandile is EXACTLY what is wrong with this country.

    • brian

      Growing up in the thirties and forties we maid a maid called Minnie. She was with us for twenty years and was given leave for bearing children on half a dozen occasions and always taken back. I was not there when she died but I believe the family handled the funeral.As a child she was like an aunt to me and I always sent her cards when I left home.

    • Francois

      You clearly do not have any decent White friends. Find some and you may start to see things a bit differently.
      Our domestic is currently in Rustenburg with her family with a month’s salary plus bonus. She lives on our property with her son who is employed as a plumber. They eat the same cooked meal that we eat every evening. She cooks it.
      We pay an additional R 500.00 pm to her family in Rustenburg for support and we are saving R 1 000.00 pm in unit trusts for her retirement.
      About 10 years ago when we were going there very hard times and could not afford to employ her, we assisted her to find another job. She worked for a black family in upmarket Sandown. After a few months she begged us to take her back because of the bad treatment she received from her Black Madam. She told us she will never work for a black family again.
      I challenge you to find some of your friends that treat their domestic workers in a decent manner. What about you? Please tell us about it.

    • rmr

      I cannot comment on how all people who employ domestic assistance treat those who work for them. I would mention that not all those employers are white and that not all the stories about those “non white” employers are favourable. For myself, a white Afrikaans speaker, I can say that I pay the wonderful woman who assists me one day a week in excess of the monthly income mentioned in the article. I driver her home after work. In addition, I pay the education fees to enable her two children to attend good schools. I encourage the children to accompany the mother as often as they can to enable them to swim in the pool and play here. I buy toys, clothes and pay for all kinds of extra lessons for them. I pay bonusses and give lavish Christmas gifts. I fund all this by working all hours of the day and night, often right through the night. I object to the racist generalisation in this article.

    • cyberdog

      Your Sister could always try get some education. There are still many education opportunities available, though they are diminishing rapidly with the no education policies of the ANC, Education and intelligence really hurt the ANC voting numbers. I do not see howo you can justify your racial undertones in this piece, there are many black domestic employers out there, are you implying that the conditions are automagicaly completely different with them? Also there are domestic workers in every country on this planet, attach whatever label you please, It is strongly in my opinion they are not much better off in South Africa than in any of the other European countries I have experienced. There are definitely a lot of other countries with a much worse track record, with regards to domestic workers, including India, Jerusalem, Syria. Not to mention Persia, where the domestics would be put to death for some of the petty crimes they get a way with in South Africa. I get the feeling that you are frustrated, and do not know how to deal with a crappy situation, so you lash out at whatever you can, or whatever the rest of the group is. In this case white people have become your scape goat. Unemployment, poor finances, and the rest of the list of issues cannot be dealt with by simply labeling it as racist. Education can, and does solve a LOT of problems.There are currently many organizations and individuals that are willing to invest enormous amounts of time and money into helping…

    • Michelle

      First off, working from 5:30am until 10pm at night is against the labour laws… earning R1250 per month is also below the rate that they should be earning. So, I am not saying I do not believe you, I am just saying it sounds “fishy”. I have many friends that employ gardeners and domestic help, and NONE of them expect theirs to work anywhere near those hours, and are paid well over the going rate.

      Why not do YOUR duty as an educated South African, and sit down with your aunt and sister and discuss with them what their rights are. If they are indeed expected to work more than 12 hours per day and are paid well below the dispensation rate, encourage them to take their complaint to the labout department.

    • Judith

      Sandile you are not assisting your relatives whose employers are in serious breach of the labour laws. I strongly suggest you take positive action instead of letting them be exploited. You are failing your family and using racist rants to justify your failure. Your behaviour is less than supportive

    • Guinness Holic

      I smell lies Sandile. Quite a few of them, and you’ve been caught.

      Any old racial port in a storm, hey Sandy? You have no REAL racial incidents to rant and rave about, so you manufacture one.

      Your bigoted slip is showing.

    • ntozakhona

      I do not know about Sandile. i had been in a situation where a close friend was exploited and abused by Portugese fruit and vegetable traders, I urged her to join a trade union but she said the trde union organisers are almost always on the payroll of her bosses. She was ultimately, like many others before her, fired on some flimsy excuse.

      I adviced her to take the matter to the CCMA. There she was not allowed to have an assistant or a representative. She was in a very strange office environment which her boss was familiar with and is by clever blacks standards not articulate. She lost the case.

      The solution? An overthrow of a system of white bossess and black servants.

    • Gregg

      “It would be wonderful for race relations,…” suggests that you have a jaundiced mind unfairly critical of a particular race group, a mind which is deeply historically scarred, I accept, but is no longer relevant in the new SA. If you write articles such as these then at least do your homework sufficiently well and if you do, you will find also find, much to your disgust Im sure, wide scale abuse by Black employers of their Black workers on a pittance wage. You will also find employers across the racial spectrum who treat their employees as part of the family beyond the legal expectation. Your point of highlighting the plight of domestic workers is valid but dont do it the injustice of pitching it in a racial manner.

    • Momma Cyndi


      Give your friend my deepest sympathy but please tell her not to feel too special. The Portuguese are just as hard on their own family members. Culturally, they are very hard workers and not very tactful so they tend not to be the easiest people to work for if you don’t share their same stringent work ethic – they are lovely, warm and kind people though.

    • Peter L


      Part of my job requires me to Chair disciplinary hearings at the organisation that I work for, and as you are no doubt aware, an employee that is dismissed as a result of a formal disciplinary haring process has the right to appeal such dismissal at the CCMA, so I also have experience of CCMA processes and procedures.

      Appellants are indeed allowed to have assistants, interpreters and to call witnesses as such hearings.

      It is a complete untruth and misrepresentation to assert that an appellant to the CCMA may not be assisted during the process.

      It is not normal practice at the CCMA for an appellant to be represented by counsel (ie a lwyer), however, in terms of the act, the commissioner does have this discretion (to allow rrepresentation by counsel).

      Please supply me the case number and hearing date for the matter in question- if the facts alleged by you are true, your friend may have grounds to have the matter reviewed.

      By the way, the CCMA acts more like a court of equity than a court of law, and many commissioners lean heavily on the side of the employee. If your friend’s appeal at the CCMA was unsuccessful, it probably lacked merit.