Kyla Mills grew up, like many privileged, white South Africans, with domestic help. After reading a Facebook post about minimum wage, Kyla again remembered her childhood, and in particular, the woman who helped raise her to be who she is today.
This is one of my mothers. I’m thinking of her tonight after reading comments on one of my Facebook groups on fair wages.
Ma Lina knew I was a girl before my parents did. She knew because she loved me even then. She’d given her heart away to my brother and patiently waited for her next child from another woman.
Ma Lina lived with us. Her son, Lucas, and the niece she was raising, Dipuo, lived in a township. Growing up I seldom thought about who was bathing and feeding them while Ma was doing that and more for us.
When Ma went home for December when I was 2, I refused to eat or wear clothing. People who were not my “mother” were trying to do the things my “mother” did.
I was 7 when Nelson Mandela came into power. My biological parents and white teachers had different explanations of what that meant to the explanation Ma had. Of course they did. I remember Ma showing me her “dompas” and translating that word for me. To me, she was anything but stupid. My whole life she’d always had the answers to everything, even when my parents didn’t.
When Ma Lina went home for good when I was 26, I went to visit her. I saw how she and her sisters lived. And then I REALLY thought about Lucas and Dipuo. When Dipuo passed away about a year later, I informally adopted her son. How do you repay someone who spent about 90% of her childhood knowing her mother was away from her, raising you. (My boy, Itu, is 18 years old now and becoming more of a man every day despite having an absent father).
When I employed my own domestic worker I felt sick. All the food we didn’t use and had to discard after their best-before date, all the luxuries we had, and all the resources we had access to suddenly became a source of shame.
We pay our domestic worker R350 for 5 hours of work on a Saturday. Seth makes us breakfast and we all eat together like a family. We buy her the lunch of her choice down the road while she showers in our shower and uses whatever toiletries she wants. We are not angels. We are people treating a person like a person. When Ma Joyce is ready, one of us drives her to the taxi that takes her to Diepsloot.
Diepsloot, where she waited many years for an RDP house. Diepsloot, where she raises her own sons as well as her nephews and niece as her sister is deceased. Diepsloot, where electricity and running water are luxuries. Diepsloot, where desperation and lack of opportunity lead to violent crime. The last words I always say to Ma Joyce on a Saturday are, “Stay safe.”
White people tell me I’m insane when they ask how much they should pay their “help”: “Minimum wage is like R20!” Yes. But paying minimum wage doesn’t make you a minimum asshole. “She uses YOUR shower?” Absolutely. If she’s the one who cleans it, she should sure as hell be able to use it. “My employer doesn’t buy ME lunch”…because you can afford to buy your own, friend.
I understand that many people can’t afford to pay as much as we do. But I also know that there are millions who can. And we can ALL afford to treat our employees with dignity, kindness, and respect. It must be heartbreaking to arrive at a nice suburban house and get on your knees to be able to put food on your table. It must be even more heartbreaking to be told, “There are so many people who would work for less, you know,” when what you know is that your wages barely cover your expenses if at all. Most of all, how heartbreaking it must be to kiss another person’s children goodnight when your own kids are going to bed without you there.
Ma Lina was treated quite well by us as far as I could tell. But I am sure that it was hard. She never hesitated for us. Never hit us once. Never raised her voice. She always held us tighter than Mom and Dad did when she hugged us, just like she is in this picture.
Please, before you settle on a value for wages, think carefully about the Lindt chocolate on the shelf while you buy pap for the people who make your lives easier. Think about the running costs of your own home and what it might be like to support a family with the money you’re giving. Think about the lives of the people your employees have a stake in, from babies to grandparents. Think about your manicured lawns and beautifully kept houses, and what an exhausted wreck you’d be if it was all up to you.
Think about Ma Lina. I always do.
Once The South African was granted permission to use this post, Kyla sent us this statement:
“I did not expect this post to reach so many people. I am touched by people’s responses but do not want to be praised for having simple humanity. Nobody deserves a gold medal for treating people with dignity—it should be a given.
I encourage everyone to have conversations with their employees about their home and financial situations, then see where they can do more. I work at a non-profit school and my husband is still paying off university debt. I am in poor health and will have to stop working soon. We don’t have much money, but we have enough to take care of Itu and make the lives of the people who work for us a little easier.
It’s long past the time where we should be having difficult conversations. There are far too many of us who can and must do better for our fellow South Africans. We need radical transformation, and it will start with each person making radical moves in the spaces they inhabit. There will always be those people with negative comments and skewed perceptions, but I hope that my words have made some people reassess how they treat others.
I give great praise to Ma Lina and all the incredible women and men who have shaped me and continue to shape me. When I called Ma to ask if we could use her photo, she agreed and said, ‘I hope it can show people to have love in their hearts.’ I am incredibly blessed to have her in my life.”
Article sourced from The South African
Photo Credit- Kyla Mills