Memoir

Prescilla, 1991 – 1993

Robert, our gardener, mentions that Prescilla is in the neighbourhood with her newborn baby, living at a different house for two or three nights at a time.


Two years ago when Prescilla was standing at the gate of our fenced-in property with her baby boy on her back. I just assumed she was looking for work and I told her what I have been saying my whole life: “We do our own work.” My Mom had never employed anybody to work in the house despite the steady stream of job seekers. We didn’t even open the door – we just talk to them from inside. My Mom suffered a back injury when I was about 13. We just divided up the work between us. I did the ironing, dusting and vacuuming inside and the sweeping outside. We all took turns helping my Dad with the dishes. We even earned some extra pocket money that way. Since I was already used to doing housework and saw my Mom raising four kids without help, I didn’t even think of employing anybody either…


Prescilla said that she was actually looking for a place to stay. She told me that the home owners down the street told her that she was using too much electricity and that she had to leave because of that. In Pretoria, where I grew up, most people had what you would call a live-in domestic worker, except that they had a separate room with a washroom attached, outside the main house. My parents used it as a guest room for my Dutch grandparents for when they came to visit us every two years for six weeks at a time. I was now living in Roodekrans, a fairly new neighbourhood west of Johannesburg and this house had a washroom with a toilet and shower attached to the garage outside, but no bedroom. Prescilla begged me to let her stay in our garden shed just until she could find a more permanent solution. She was already working at multiple households in the area, on average two days a week. I sympathized with her situation and that’s how she came to stay with us, cleaning the house once a week in return. Her son Thembiso was a few months younger than my youngest, so he fit right in.


Over time I learned that his name meant promise after the promise Thembiso’s father made to Prescilla: he would marry her if she can prove that she can grow his seed. Unfortunately he did not keep his promise… Now she was in hiding, since according to his Zulu custom, she told me, he can take his child and give it to his own mother to raise. Prescilla however, is a Xhosa and in their culture the baby stays in the mother’s family. She had another child, but did not marry that father either since polygamy was part of his Tswana culture. She couldn’t bare the thought of the possibility of having to share him with another woman. The reason she was not living with her mother’s family in the Cape herself was that she is prone to asthma and she needs to be in a dryer climate.


At Christmas time it is the custom in South Africa that the domestic workers all go home. She was leaving for two weeks to visit her family in the Eastern Cape, almost 1500 km away. She was really excited and was making phone calls home to make arrangements with her younger brother. She told me how much she loved her favourite sibling and what a wonderful person he was. She came back without Thembiso. She had left him with his three year old sister to be raised by her Mom. She was also very distraught since her brother had been accidentally killed while he was trying to break up a knife fight. She eventually moved to better accommodations where she was also employed full time and even had to wear a uniform. I went to visit her once and she seemed happy with how life was treating her.


In the meantime we had employed Robert to work in the garden. He came once every two weeks. I don’t know where he lived or any personal details about him.


One day in early January, Prescilla showed up again. She had lost her job because she came back one week late from her Christmas holidays. So she moved back into the shack and found additional employment. I learned from her that the domestic workers in each neighbourhood contribute to a money pool amongst themselves which they call ‘stokvel’ and then they take turns receiving the lump sum, say every month. In general, they also spend time together and help each other out when needed. After a few months it became apparent that Prescilla was pregnant. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation. I’ve had two scheduled C sections and have no experience supporting somebody through labour. Is she even allowed to go to the nearest hospital for the birth? Should she not be with the father of her baby, or with her family? Prescilla told me that her boyfriend, who is a policeman, had a place where she could stay. I dropped her off at the taxi station and we said our goodbyes. I thought I was being helpful.


Robert tells me that when he found out, he knew we would let her stay with us if we were aware. I was shocked and I felt horrible. I realized that I had caused her hardship and I felt responsible for her being homeless with her infant. I had no idea that she felt she couldn’t stay with us when I was encouraging her to find a more secure solution. My world is so different from hers. I am obviously privileged. We have a mortgage from the bank to secure a house and I have a loving husband that even earns enough that I can stay home to raise our kids. Even though I think of myself as an intelligent person, I am obviously naive and ignorant about the precarious situation that domestic workers in South Africa find themselves in. Many times the black people who work in the suburbs of South Africa forfeit the support of their own families and their own culture.


PS. Prescilla’s baby had contracted AIDS and they moved to a shanty town closer to the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Eventually we broke down the shed, sold the house and left the country in May 1994. The new owners added a servant room behind the garage and brought their live-in domestic worker with them.

Afrikaans saying: “ …van die wal af in die sloot.