Another side to life in Jo’burg
2018-02-01 16:10:00 -

Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker


On my second visit to Johannesburg, one of the most beautiful cities in Africa in terms of infrastructure, I could only put up with my family for a certain time. For the remainder of my visit, before my return to Dublin, I made sure I had some ‘me time’ for a few nights. This was particularly important for reflection on my time there, and just to give myself a little peace and quiet after a family wedding buzz that was my main reason for the visit. After all, I had last lived with my family when I was 18. Two decades later, it’s hard to begin to integrate back into the same nuclear family that has changed so much over the years.


Thanks to a popular room rental app, I got myself a week’s stay at an amazing location in terms of peace and quiet and nice scenery. I had always heard of Randburg being a posh area, but I didn’t realise it was that posh until I got there and walked the streets. I didn’t pick it because of this, but when I looked for places to stay it was the only available for the time I needed it. Still, I am glad to have stayed there, or else I wouldn’t have known that about 30 minutes outside Jo’burg city centre exists such a place or places.


I did not ask what my hosts did for a living, but I could tell they lived far more comfortably than many in the developed world. To start with, I was merely looking for an ensuite room with cooking facilities so I could prepare myself meals when I felt like it. What I got was a spacious two bedroom flat that’s part of a house but had its own entrance. It had a large living room and a bar-style kitchen. I felt it was way more than I needed but I couldn’t complain, it was great value.


What I found interesting was that this place opened my eyes to the new upper middle class in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The house was massive, with vast green grounds that contained a mini soccer pitch, a playground and a swimming pool. I wondered how much it costs to maintain such a house, especially each time I saw a shadow of a groundsman, also known locally as a ‘garden boy’, pass by my window.


The house also had what my host referred to as her ‘helper’. Firstly I saw her clad in her three-piece French maid uniform my first morning there. Later, towards the end of my stay on a Saturday, she walked past my window as I was making breakfast, dressed in jeans and a white top. This made me assume it was her day off as it was the only time I ever saw her not wearing a uniform and leaving the house. From a distance, I wished I had had time to chat to her, but she was so rare to find during my stay, and anyway it would have been inappropriate to chat to her during her working hours.


What I took from this was that behind my host’s high and gated walls, I was in another world – a world that lacked nothing, a world with servants and a totally different Jo’burg to the one known to the world. A wealthy, peaceful, green, and warm Johannesburg. A place one could call home if we could all share it.

Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.


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