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To all the tea girls I have loved before

There’s a problem with the tense of a popular, communist freedom song which goes “my father was a garden boy, my mother was a kitchen girl, that’s why I am a communist, a communist, a communist”. Sometimes “socialist” is used instead of “communist”. In this song garden boys and kitchen girls are relegated to the past tense and communists are catapulted into the present tense. Yet when I look around, I see millions of dignified mothers who are “kitchen girls” and millions of decent fathers who are “garden boys”. At the risk of offending some of my best friends who are communists, when I look around, I struggle to find communists who speak and live like communists. Shouldn’t we rather sing “my mother is a kitchen girl, my father is garden boy, that’s why there are no communists, no communists, no communists”. We may find this version a little more logical, slightly better arranged and a tad more truthful.

This brings me to a matter that is the focus of this piece. Of all the insults dealt by Julius Malema — arguably the most potent insulter democratic South Africa has ever produced — the one about Lindiwe Mazibuko being a “tea girl” touches a particularly raw national nerve. I hold no brief for Ms Mazibuko who, except for the 2011 local election posters, I have never met in person. Indeed, for all her eloquence — and isn’t she just — I have remained unimpressed with hers and the DA’s general response to the Makhaza toilet saga, for example. Indeed I have grown weary and suspicious of Obama-like eloquence until and unless it is either followed by or matched with depth and integrity of thought combined with action.

Mazibuko is simply the latest of dozens of victims of Malema’s rampant misogyny. This country has more than two million poorly paid and vulnerable domestic servants — the vast majority of whom are women and black — working for black and white families, black and white madams, black and white masters. It is not Mazibuko who is under attack here, Malema’s statement shows the middle finger to millions of women working in the hospitality industry — women who daily make tea, cook and serve food to allegedly important people like Malema. It is a slap in the face of the people who cook our food and serve it.

Let’s face it, Mazibuko is no tea girl. Malema knows this as well as I do. She is his political equal and his reported refusal to square up with her in a public debate may say more about him than about her. My poor and unskilled aunt is a tea girl and she may have voted for Malema’s party in the recent local elections and will probably vote for it at the next available opportunity.

And why is Malema borrowing from the worst of apartheid language and practice to attack a woman — in the process denigrating millions of other women? Was this decorated liberation movement — the ANC — so desperate these past elections as to allow the likes of Malema to stoop so low and insult one of the most marginalised groups in South Africa as part and parcel of its electioneering? While Malema has been accused of “scaring off white voters with his statements” and Jimmy Manyi has been blamed for “scaring off coloured voters” — accusations based on rather superficial and lazy analysis — it is shocking that Malema’s statements, which attack working-class women, have hardly been remarked upon. Not even the ANC’s leaders seem to get the cruel irony.

Were Steve Biko still alive, he would need to revise his thesis that alienated and self-hating men (sic) were at their most vocal against their oppressors in the privacy of their toilets. There is no more privacy in the toilet! In fact there are no toilets, period. Today tea girls and garden boys are expected to use the ‘is’lahla’ toilets (open-top toilets) in Rammulotsi (Viljoenskroon) and Makhaza (Cape Town). It is the tea girls in the thousands of villages and squatter camps who are without (working) toilets of any sort. I have news for Biko. Today it seems that alienated, self-hating men are at their most vocal when they torch libraries. They speak eloquently when they die in police brutality, they speak volumes when they shoot-to-kill in police uniforms and gangster masks, they are at their most articulate when they rape, gang rape, corrective rape, date rape, war rape, child rape, infant rape, you name it.

Remember the water problem for which Andries Tatane died? Consider the water problems in virtually all nine provinces. Who walks the kilometres to collect water from the river shared with wild and domestic animals? It is the tea girls! Who experiences first-hand the contrast between the lack of water in the squatter camp and the apparent abundance of water in the former whites-only suburbs? The tea girls! Who is daily amazed at the virtually uninterrupted flow of electricity in the former whites-only suburbs while electricity supply to townships and squatter camps is precarious, unreliable and generally non-existent? Who lives in the areas where the so-called load-shedding is and has been a permanent feature of life? Tea girls! Who makes up for the lack of electricity in rural South Africa by spending inordinate amounts of hours a day in search of firewood and then carry it home for kilometres on their heads? Tea girls! Who is holding the short end of the stick when it comes to the country’s economic and healthcare woes? Tea girls! Who is the biggest loser in the post-apartheid BEE and affirmative action regime? Tea girls!

My concern for the tea girls is as personal as it is political. It is gendered as it is economic. The tea girls of my beloved country are the unspoken and unacknowledged glue that holds corporations and families together. I should know because I myself, in my secondary school years, was once a garden boy in the then whites-only suburbs of Florida in the west of Johannesburg. Additionally, I am one of millions of persons brought up on the measly wages and the generous love of tea girls. To all the tea girls I have loved before, I say, I love you still and will love you forever. After all, my own father was a tea girl.

Author

  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

    Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.