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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.