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The passing of a maidriarch

All of last week I was thinking that I need to contact one of the most important people in my life — my nanny, Florence Mbuli. Something inside me told me that I needed to contact her and thank her for making me the person I am today. I found out on Sunday morning that unfortunately, Florence had died. I had not made the call I wanted to make. So I thought, what better tribute to such an important person than to dedicate this blog to Florence and ladies like her.

I remember debating with my friends post-1994 how we (as the last white generation to grow up under apartheid), never actually benefitted from apartheid. Being the person I am always argued that indeed, I for one, did. The nursery school I went to, the primary school I went to, the high school I went to, even the university I went to (RAU, for goodness sake) were all geared towards making me — a white male in an apartheid society — succeed. And succeed I have. To argue anything to the contrary, in my opinion, would be disingenuous.

But there was one more factor that gave me an advantage. The maidriarch of our family — Florence Mbuli. Florence started working for our family when I was 18 months old. I never had grandparents and in many respects, this lady was my grandmother. She was my childhood confidant. She gave me a perspective on my own family that I would not otherwise have had. She was a stern disciplinarian, this was particularly important given that I was a lazy little shit at school.

But for all the advantages of having Florence in my life, there were people who needed her more than some snot-nosed brat in the green leafy suburbs, such as her own family. Florence worked for us voluntarily — I use the word “voluntarily” in a very loose sense — in a system which was guaranteed to making sure while one part of society succeeded, another part of society had to lose. The choices for people like Florence were, and remain, stark — leave your family and try make a living in the suburbs or remain in the economically backward Bantustans and eke out a living and suffer economic and political deprivation. Not much of a choice if you ask me. These same choices still confront many people though you can now easily replace the word “Bantustan” with “township” or “informal settlement”.

Florence’s children have all turned out to be very successful people, despite their largely absent mother. What was my role in their anguish of not having a mother when they were growing up? It wouldn’t surprise me if they resented me for having their mother in my life while they went out. So often we get trapped in thinking about the big-picture effects of apartheid, typically the economic effects nowadays. But we forget the Florence Mbulis and their families of this world.

Some people reading this will probably dismiss it as liberal nonsense. But to those people I would ask that they just pause a moment and think about the advantages they had in life and where did those advantages come from? A more pressing concern for me is, what are were doing to ensure that economic (no longer political circumstances thank goodness) circumstances do not require that children grow up without their mothers? Alas, not much I think.

When I saw Florence the last time, nearly two months ago, I was sure I would see her again. I guess we always assume the people closest to us will always be there for us. I have never met Florence’s children. I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to meet them and thank them for sharing their mother with me even though I, the one who needed it least, had her company the most.

Author

  • Warren has been specialising in information technology and intellectual property law for the past eight years and has become rather good at it during this time. His experiences have involved some interesting journeys along the information superhighway, including dealing with pirates in one form or another, mostly software though. Warren also has an MA in political studies and has been known to comment on matters including politics, economics, and international relations. Why? Because he can. The legal bit: any thoughts expressed on this blog are purely his own and can in no way be blamed on his parents, siblings or other immediate or extended family.

32 Comments

  1. Judith Judith 4 July 2011

    Thank you for your sincere compliment to a special lady. My daughter had one such person as well in her life – Paselina Gelese – who retired in 2001 and died 7 years later. She worked for us for over 25 years and was very special

  2. Goahlobogwe Goahlobogwe 4 July 2011

    Contrast this with comments from Eusebius McKaizer’s article in the M&G edition of fridat 01/07/2011.

  3. Marumo Marumo 4 July 2011

    Thank you for this Warren. I’ve always wondered what the dynamic is between a family’s domestic worker and that family’s children. Your experience does shed some light on this. I wish more people could speak about their experiences…

  4. beatriz beatriz 4 July 2011

    Thanksso much for this Warren. It’s beautiful and heartwarming. And sad.

    I’m just not so sure about you needing her the least. .

  5. Gus Sutherland Gus Sutherland 5 July 2011

    Warren this is a special tribute to a very special person in four generations of your family. All the friends and, your large exdended family, knew Florence was “the gate keeper” for dear June and you all. Yes, I do wonder how any of us could or would have changed the past in South Africa and how different the present would be if we had? I know that our lives would have been “less” without the maidriarch of our lives.

  6. Al Al 5 July 2011

    You’re a nice man in a nasty country, Warren.

  7. Dave Harris Dave Harris 5 July 2011

    Good story but very guarded and short on the TRUE cost of having a maid/nanny/mother like Florence Mbuli who undoubtedly showered you with a lot of love as well. Try getting that all that from a maid overseas and you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

    The generations of amassing wealth in your family is really the core issue of land redistribution to address the vast socioeconomic imbalance in our society. Anyway Warren, to walk the talk, how about figuring out how to share some of your family assets gained during apartheid with your maid’s family – its the least you can do to show your appreciation for someone who has been like a mother to you.

  8. Fhatuwani Rambau Fhatuwani Rambau 5 July 2011

    Your article continues to perpetuate stereotype about black domestic workers. It is clear that florence mbuli was still refered to as a kitchen girl in your house even though she was 20 years older than your mother. According to you and your family she deserves to be untitled. Where is your respect boy?

  9. Warren Weertman Warren Weertman 5 July 2011

    @Fhatuwani – I don’t often respond to postings but in this case I will. We never referred to Florence as a “kitchen girl”. She was part of the family and we referred to her as “Granny” as a mark of respect. Funny that you accuse me of stereotyping when you yourself rely on stereotypes of white people to judge me.

  10. benzo benzo 5 July 2011

    @Dave and @Fhatuwani: If a man expresses his gratitude to a loved person he gets hammered, if none express their gratitude they all get hammered.
    Is their anyway in your world that people like Warren (and the many like him) can do good?
    Or has hatred infested your souls so deeply that no reparation is possible?
    I should begin to feel sorry for your miserable lifes but I do not.
    It is your choice to reject the many hands that are reaching out.

  11. Toni Benoni Toni Benoni 5 July 2011

    you first dave….

  12. Ash Ash 5 July 2011

    C’mon Fhatuwani, what’s your response this time?

  13. MLH MLH 5 July 2011

    Warren, the only thing better would be thanks in person to her children and perhaps it’s time to make the effort to meet them.

  14. Shankar Shankar 5 July 2011

    Well-written. As an Indian I have similar issues to grapple with my nanny (who i called aunty). Race is an issue in this South African context, but in many ways this story and the inequality you describe mirrors what happens in millions of homes across India, except the maids and employers are generally of the same race.

  15. Paul T Paul T 5 July 2011

    Great tribute Warren. Special people, who have given so very much to a great country. Thinking of her family, which of course includes yours.

  16. Paul T Paul T 5 July 2011

    and @Dave Harris, don’t be an ass. Do you know Warren’s family? I know some of them. And do you seriously think they have not done their damndest to help Florence’s family? Of course they have. Don’t be such an ass, they are grieving and deserve respect.

  17. B Derrick Radebe B Derrick Radebe 5 July 2011

    One swallow does not make a summer.Warren`s writing is a welcome and honest South African story.We need more stories like his given the high number of White families who enjoyed similar priviledges.

  18. Dave Harris Dave Harris 6 July 2011

    I mean no disrespect to Warren, my heartfelt sympathy to their families for their loss.
    But I still want to know if Warren will do the right thing. Anyone who gives lifelong service to a family, to the detriment of her own family, deserves to be treated with the respect and gratitude she deserves. Rather than mere words, I think Florence Mbuli would smile down from above, if Warren’s family at least had the decency to compensate her family appropriately for the role she played in Weertman’s lives. What better way to atone for the injustices of the past than to empower a struggling black family with the gift of land since all land acquired during apartheid was essential government handouts anyway. In case you forgot how land was expropriated during apartheid, maybe this will refresh your memory: http://southafricana.blogspot.com/2011/06/long-arc-of-history-bends-towards-land.html

  19. Gigs Gigs 6 July 2011

    what does writting a brilliant piece of tribute to a late poor nanny in the comfort of an office help in healing the wounds of apartheid. The first step for you can be to go out and meet the children of the late Mbuli. As you have mentioned I am one of those who dismiss your article as liberal nonsense.

  20. Ash Ash 6 July 2011

    No responses from Dave Harris & Fhatuwani — oh what a surprise!

  21. Claire Claire 6 July 2011

    Shame on you Dave Harris & Fhatuwani. Pray tell, what are YOU doing about the problems this country faces? What has been written here is in the spirit of reconciliation and an honest reflection of his position as white male in society, from his own perspective.

    No wonder people shy away from sharing deeply personal experiences like this when people like you two can find nothing but more blame. WE ALL have to start somewhere in the project to build the nation.

    Since you are the ones pointing fingers, I really am interested to know what you are doing that warrants such an extraordinary self-righteous response.

  22. ian ian 6 July 2011

    your argument is rather weak harris.
    you say : ‘anyone who gives lifelong services to a family, to the detriment of her own family’. disagree..she provided for her family by going out to find work. this work allowed her family to be ‘very successful people’. in some respects detrimental as they had a working mother – but it lead to their success. In that sense Florence is no different from a corporate woman in western/asian society – its a choice – family time or providing for your family…
    next error – Florence’s struggling family? ‘very successful’ people doesn’t sound like struggling..
    Land was government handouts? Shoot, i better not tell my parents they wasted money buying their land and property..if only they’d known it was free..where were you 40 years ago – could have saved them a fortune.

    as for your comment about ‘getting that from a maid overseas’ – i’m assuming that you’ve never been overseas, certainly not to Asia to see the care provided by the Thai, Indo, Filipino nannies, helpers and carers..
    sad little blinkered world you live in harris

  23. Observer Observer 6 July 2011

    How arrogant and bigoted of ‘Dave Harris’ to assume that because the author is white, he must have ‘land’. I will take a small bet that ‘Dave Harris’ has more land, more wealth, and drives a flashier car than the author, and still has the arrogance and plain dishonesty to insult others. What a tosser.

  24. Sandile Memela Sandile Memela 7 July 2011

    hi warren

    florence mbuli’s story is the story of my mother & her younger sister. it is the story of her daugheters, my two elder sisters. they were all ‘domestic workers.’ to a large extent, they never had neither voice nor visibility. and yet, they have always been and continue to be the nucleus and glue that holds and binds both black and white families together.
    thanks for taking the time to look at and consider the plight of the black woman who is completely disregarded and dismissed as non-important because she does not have an MBA.
    you are right, we are a product of these matriarchs and not Maidtriarchs. i may be wrong but the latter sounds demeaning.
    as a child of a domestic worker, my first pair of jeans was at 17. it was a hand-me-down from a white boy. i dont remember if it was a gift or taken without permission. i find your story quite touching and inspiring.
    it is part of an important inititiave to give voice to these sterling and resilient women, to make them visible and perhaps restore or highlight their power.
    you have written honestly about this. thanks for that. the best you can do is to help educate the children of florence mbuli or relatives. they they will be able to take care of themselves and the future. beyond that you owe them nothing. we are all responsible for ourselves, our successes or failure. good luck :-)

  25. dintshang thabo dintshang thabo 7 July 2011

    I ride a bus to and from the eastern suburbs of Pretoria. From the early hours of the morning scores of women board these buses in to these suburbs. And get back late in the evening. This means scores of township children go through the day without thier mothers. Having pointed out that the system has designed a society that natures a white to succeed, this has not in any measure been addressed to change and balance out. Being witness to the effects this has had on our youth, it makes one wonder if the economic imbalance in our country should be addressed so as to mitigate the after effects being created by the current status of ”migrant” labour from townships. Which basically constitutes un-mothered youth who roam the township streets mostly ending up on the wrong side of the law… Thanks though for touching such an issue.

  26. Vakomana Vakomana 7 July 2011

    Mr Thabo is quite right – the tragedy of great women like Florence – unsung heroes who have given so much to others – is that they have not been able to give such love, support and attention to their own children. It is a social, political and personal tragedy. He is also quite right that ‘tsotsis’ are not born that way – and if these wonderful women had time to CARE for them, many would turn out differently. We need to join hands to make this change.

  27. Vakomana Vakomana 7 July 2011

    Mr Memela’s comments are also fine and noble. I urge all among us who care about Florences and their kids to get out there and HELP them – help them with education, sports equipment, donate an old computer or laptop, see if you can get your local schoold or club to make their sports field or debating hall open to township kids – LET’S MAKE IT HAPPEN TOGETHER.

  28. SouthEaster SouthEaster 8 July 2011

    Did Florence have a real first name?

  29. Una Una 8 July 2011

    Hi Warren

    This is a wonderful story. I sympathise with you. You are now a victim of the laager mentality that is fuelling seeds of militancy amongst Africans. On my part I just hope that you are not one of those when they see every African person they see a maid or garden boy and when they realise that it is not the case they quickly drift into the laager or start planning his/her downfall because she/he is not one good native. Your story is very touching regardless

  30. Al Al 9 July 2011

    The subject of this article reminds me of the stoic women of Zimbabwe who also leave their families to do cross-border trading in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, even Mauritius selling small portable doilies, then buy things for resale back home. In better times in Zim many would have been domestics closer to their loved ones and earning better money. I think a statue should one day be put up to all these women: the traders and the domestics.

  31. Yvonne Yvonne 9 August 2013

    Dave Harris! Tell me and if one does not have land or house to give ? What do you suggest. We had a “Housekeeper” NOT a maid for over 40 years.! (Nearly as long as my sister in laws “WHITE” Housekeeper in LONDON!) Started employment as a young lady with my Grandmother, she could not read or write,cook or even do the simplest household chores !Her training started, then to my mother and afterwards to us. She NEVER felt a Servant (she had a job like our people do now being Au Pairs in Europe!!) She got married, my mother paid for the wedding and a very grand affair.it was. She had her own Privacy, room enlarged to accommodate husband! small lounge area,,dining area/ private bathroom, tv, radio!She had 2 children ( Not 10!!)Her Husband got a very good jobs as Supervisor via my father. They got a deposit for a house from us,moved and she still preferred working for us.Children went to after school until 5 and they collected them!She preferred that to them running around the streets and they were involved in sport. SO! many youngsters in our family have gone to London/Europe as Au Pairs etc.eve for Billionaires!benefitted tremendously! SO what the hell is your Problem! and the problem of others with domestics/gardeners, Maids, housekeepers or au pairs! Wake up Man! you get the job you apply and qualify for! NO SLAVES IN CHAINS DRAGGED TO THE JOBS!Obviously Dr Chris Barnard would not have qualified as our Gardener -NOT qualified!

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