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A sad index of life in South Africa (for some)

A month or so ago, Thelma’s father died. Thelma cleans our house every week, and has done so for 7 years. So when she asked to borrow some extra cash to travel to and arrange the funeral, we had no hesitation in helping out, and also resolved to tell her on her return that she should consider the money a gift. Today was her first day back, and at some point in the late morning, she handed S. a piece of paper – a certified copy of her father’s death certificate.

Having experienced a similar bereavement myself (semi) recently, I know the need for such bits of paper well, in terms of winding up estates and transferring bits and pieces of a life into another name. But in this context, it seemed little more than an index of mistrust – the mistrust that many of the people Thelma encounters still today feel towards people in her socio-economic class and – to not beat around the bush – people of her race. Some of her employers may have demanded such a piece of paper – and I couldn’t help wondering if, over the years I’ve known her, I’ve ever given her reason to think I might demand one too.

I think not, and I certainly hope not.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

1 reply on “A sad index of life in South Africa (for some)”

Sad post.

But if it helps at all: even during my brief time in this country, I have seen this same scenario played out time and time again. And I rapidly came to the conclusion that it is not my fault, just as it isn’t your fault; it is the psychological carry-over from the previous regime and all that goes with it.

I want to be addressed by my first name, not as “Boss” or “Master”. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable in these situations and have now made it clear (and continue to make it clear) to those who work for and with me that we must have an open, honest, straightforward Employer/Employee relationship.
Ironically, you trust these people with your most valued possessions: your home and (in my case) your kids. Why would you not trust them when something like this arises?

Sadly, I think the only way to avoid this awkwardness is to actually emphasise the kind of relationship you want with Thelma: what you expect from her and what she should expect from you. And even then, it’s a often a change of mindset, a new set of values to adopt – and often with the fear of losing a valuable job.

Apartheid will always have a hell of a lot to answer for.

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