Scary stories from a lovely place
Today is Tuesday in Johannesburg and Tuesday always brings with it two reminders of the enormous yet basic privileges I am entitled to, merely by virture of where and to who I was born.
Firstly, Tuesday is bin day which means that many poor men will be scouring the streets, rummaging through each bin looking for food or anything they can sell, like steel, recycling, old computer parts etc. These guys walk around with makeshift trolleys bearing a huge, expanding bag that grows and grows throughout the day. They will walk for kilometres, all over Joburg, up and down the streets, and when the daylight is just starting to fade and people like me are sitting down to dinner, they will make their way to the city recycling plants and metal depository’s to collect their meagre takings, and then finally home, wherever that may be.
It’s a weird feeling wheeling the bin to the side of the road, or going out to add extra trash and then watching from my lounge room couch as man after man after man rummages through the discarded bits of my life. I feel so bad. I want to go out and offer them some nice metal or food that isn’t in a rubbish bag, but this is how they earn their living.
I was reading a book the other day about the relationship between all people in the world and how people in poor countries (like Rwanda or Paraguay) are inherently connected with people in rich countries (like Australia or Britain) even though their lives are so different. The premise is that the consequences of the lifestyles of people in rich countries affect the daily livelihood of people in poor countries through major things like environmental damage and food shortages.
A basic way that this occurs is through Aid. The Aid given by rich country’s governments or charities is, let’s face it, not the best we have, rather it’s often the last of what we have, either the last of our cash that we can spare, our unwanted clothes that go in the charity bin, old technology like brick mobile phones, tins of sardines or tomato paste. What is an intangible reality for mainly poor or mainly rich countries comes together intimately living in Joburg. Yesterday I saw a guy in an Audi A4 (I wouldn’t have known the name of it unless I was married to Stephen) talking to a beggar at a traffic light. Before driving away at the beckon of the green light he passed on his half-smoked cigarette. When people knock on my front gate and ask for food I rarely go back inside and prepare them a nice meal, as I would for my husband. (Once when I was new to Joburg I did prepare a guy some good food, but when I finally emerged he’d obviously gotten bored of waiting and left). I’ll give them whatever’s in the fruit bowl, half a loaf of bread, half a packet of biscuits. Or on Tuesday’s the guys go through my bin and take whatever treasures they can find that in the hustle of life I couldn’t be bothered to make better use of.
The other thing about Tuesday is that it’s the day my cleaner, a lovely lady named Smangele, comes. Now depending on what part of the world you are from, your mind will have conjured up an impression of what this means. In Australia employing a cleaner is a costly endeavour, and the subject would most likely be either a varsity student with a light study load (read: Arts student), an immigrant with a good work ethic, or a mother earning some part time cash. There would also be a certain class judgement attached to someone who can afford to have a cleaner. In South Africa cleaners are more affordable and fairly common for anyone who earns more than R7000 (about $1200) a month. Some will work for a household one day a week, others all week or will even live in, occupying a room next to the live in gardener.
The more common name for this occupation is a domestic worker, but that conjures up far too many negative connotations for me, so I go with cleaner. They are invariably black women who have their own home and family far away that they need to find time to care for. I’m sorry to say but white people usually employ cleaners so they don’t have to be bothered making their own bed or washing their dishes, but rather can drink tea, play with their kids, work outside the home or meet up with a friend. Undoubtedly all this employment is job creation, and sure, that is a good thing. But it’s too easy to use the expression ‘job creation’ but not care about the person you have created a job for or the circumstances under which they work.
I wouldn’t have chosen to employ Smangele. When I moved into Stephen’s house I inherited her from a time when four busy men lived here. I think she prefers things these days. I try as hard as I can for my relationship with Smangele to be unique. Stephen pays her generously, gives sick leave, Christmas bonuses, extra cash for groceries or doctor visits when needed. I don’t patronise her or boss her around, I try to answer in Zulu when I can (but I’m a hopeless umlungu who can only manage English), I give her tasty muffins to take home for her kids, and much to her consternation, help with as much as the housework as she will let me. Before she comes I clean. I always make the bed. I wash the morning’s dishes. I tidy the house and put away books, clothes, whatever stuff has been lazily left around. I do the laundry. The other morning Smangele arrived, looked around and said “ai, you are putting me out of a job. Stephen will fire me!” We laughed and I felt embarrassed, but I just can’t bear the thought of Smangele, a woman old and wise and kind enough to be my mother, picking up my old clothes and washing away the remnants of Stephen’s weet bix. This is a cliche, but she feels like a member of the family and it was really special having her at our wedding (the picture above is her with Stephen’s brother). I think Smangele is more excited about the impending birth of Steve Jnr than I am. She will be a good surrogate grandma in the absence of the real ones.
And the rich country/poor country relationship dynamic comes into play here as well. Once I threw away half a tube of toothpaste that was some dirty herbal flavour. I noticed on Tuesday afternoon that Smangele had rescued it and was taking it home. I am notorious for buying groceries that I want to experiment with but never get around to. On a number of occasions Smangele has asked if she could have the samp/spices/pilchards that have been cluttering my minimalist kitchen shelves for months. Once again, the poor person ends up making good use of the stuff the rich person can choose to discard. But at least Smangele feels like she can ask for my bad grocery choices.
Like so much of my philosophysing, I don’t have a clear cut solution for any of this. Often I want to give Smangele early retirement and keep paying her so that she can buy food and school books for her kids, or I want to invite the bin fossickers in for lunch. Stephen thinks both are a bad idea, especially the latter. Maybe because I was born into such undeserved privilege I should just suck it up and bear the guilty feelings each day. I don’t know.