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.