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Ian Martin

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Frikkie And Plug Discuss The Domestic Servant Problem

“They cleaned me out,” said Frikkie.

He was taking Plug through his mansion, and his voice bounced about in the empty spaces and made him sound like a guide showing tourists around a mausoleum.

“Must’ve been an inside job,” said Plug. “You say they even took the beds?”

“They even took the fucking beds,” said Frikkie. “No forced entry, and the alarm didn’t go off. All the time in the world.”

“Suspect anyone?”

“That lazy bitch, Constance,” said Frikkie. “I fired her just before we went to the States. Maybe I should have waited until we got back.”

“At least they didn’t take the outdoor furniture,” said Plug. They sat under the big umbrella on the terrace and Frikkie extricated two beers from a six-pack the thieves had kindly overlooked in the garage. “And they couldn’t steal the view. You are fully insured, I take it?”

“Of course,” said Frikkie. “But you know how much hassle this is going to be?”

“This is one of the major drawbacks to living the affluent lifestyle in South Africa,” said Plug. “It’s all very well being waited on hand and foot, but cheap labour comes with a whole lot of crap you really don’t want to have to deal with. From the moment they arrive in the morning it’s nothing but trouble.”

“You’re telling me? That bloody Constance used to drive me crazy. ‘Good morning, Constance.’ ‘Good morning, Mister Frikkie. How are you?’ Of course I had to say, ‘Fine, and you?’ That was her cue, and for the next half hour I would have to listen to all the shit going on in her life. Expensive sob story shit. Her son had been mugged on the train; her husband had been retrenched; bus fares were going up; her grandchild needed an operation. Jesus, there was no end to it, and she constantly needed help. If it wasn’t a handout, then it was a loan. And if it wasn’t a loan, it was a handout.”

“Yah, I know, I know. And if you don’t help them, they make you pay, anyway. Not only do they get dikbek surly, they deliberately break stuff, and hide things, and work incredibly slowly.”

“And when you don’t give in and keep them happy you never know how they will take revenge,” said Frikkie. “Sometimes Constance would serve up a meal, and there would be a very smug look on her face. And I would catch her watching me intently as I sniffed my Scotch and took a sip.”

“That’s their standard procedure with brandy and whisky,” said Plug. “They take their 25 percent and top you up with piss, and there’s no way you can tell without having the stuff tested in a laboratory.”

“They are never happy, no matter how much you give them,” said Frikkie. “I paid that ungrateful cow twice the minimum wage. Four thousand a month, plus breakfast, plus lunch, plus tea, coffee and biscuits whenever she felt peckish. But it was never enough.”

“It seems the more you give them, the more they want,” said Plug. “But that’s typical of human nature right across the board. Our own extravagance and wastefulness corrupt our employees’ values and they become consumed by envy, greed and gluttony. Just like us.”

“You could be right,” said Frikkie. “But I find it hard to feel guilty just at this moment. In fact, I’m convinced that it is me who is the victim here. Christ, my house has been stripped bare!”

“You are lucky you weren’t at home,” said Plug. “They might have roughed you up, or worse. And the vehicles?”

“No, my car was at the airport, and the SUV was with the panel beaters.” Frikkie did not seem to derive much consolation from this. “Now I’ve got to replace all the stolen goods and find another housekeeper. And what if she turns out to be another Constance? Man, I feel trapped!”

“You could downsize and move into a flat and not bother with servants at all,” suggested Plug.

“Are you joking? And have to sweep and vacuum, and wash and iron and cook and do the dishes? And clean the toilet? Are you crazy, or what?” He was treating Plug’s remark with the contempt it deserved. “What’s the point of being rich and not having servants?”

Plug pulled another two bottles of beer from the plastic wrapping.

“All over the world rich people are faced with this problem,” he said. “There is something both shameful and shameless about letting strangers into our homes and getting them to wait on us and clean up our mess, and then sending them back to their hovels and their domestic problems. Yes, the way we exploit poor people by paying them a pittance to work in our palatial residences is shameful. And the way we expose ourselves to these strangers is obscenely shameless. It is not surprising that this relationship between employer and domestic worker is fraught with conflict.”

“You know what that woman said to me when I told her I couldn’t afford to give her another raise only six months after the last one?”


“She said that the Bible teaches us not to tell lies. Can you believe it? When she knows I am the Archbishop of a church with hundreds of thousands of devout followers? What kind of respect is that?

“No respect at all,” said Plug.

“Then she starts asking me questions like I’m standing in the dock at the TRC. Not that the TRC was worth shit.”

“No, the TRC was worth less than shit. What kind of questions?”

“Well, stuff about the cost of living. She points at my feet and asks how much those boots cost, and looks at a cash slip and tells me R3800 and says she earns R 4000 a month.  And she tells me I look stupid in these boots, and they give me blisters because she heard me telling someone on the phone that these boots are killing me and make my feet stink. And I can waste R3800 on these boots but I can’t afford to give her a R200 a month raise?”

“Their ears are always flapping,” said Plug. “And they have phenomenal memories. Where did she get the cash slip?”

“Hell, I don’t know. She had a whole fistful of them. She held up one about half a metre long. Groceries and booze from Woolworths. Close on seven thousand for a trolley load. And she starts going through items. R90 for a little piece of Blue Vein cheese. R70 for a little tin of oysters. Eighty bucks for an asparagus and mushroom quiche. R240 for a Black Forest cake. Then she starts going through all the meat; all the steak and kebabs and ribbetjies and rashers in marinade. Danmn it, she says it’s enough for six families! And then the wine. R660 for six bottles of Chardonay. 900 for six bottles of Merlot. R720 for six bottles of bubbly.. And then, and now she’s shouting at me, the big bag of dog food. R620! For a dog! And I can’t afford a R200 a month increase? At the end of it she is baring her teeth like a wild animal and I can see she really hates me for the life she has to lead.”

“There’s no way we can deny she has got a point. What we pay them and what we spend on ourselves is utterly shameful and entirely inexcusable. And what we expect them to do for us is despicably shameless.”

“You keep going on about this shameless shit. I mean, what’s so shameless about employing someone to do domestic work for you?”

“It stems from our ingrained sense of superiority,” Plug said. “We think it’s perfectly fine to take this stranger into our home and let her mingle with us and observe us in intimate detail, and allow her access to all our personal stuff and not feel in the least bit embarrassed. After a while we say she is one of the family. But we mean she is one of the family the way the family dog is. Because she is socially inferior we regard her as not quite human like us, and so it doesn’t matter that she knows all this stuff about us.”

“Yah, I kind of see what you’re getting at,” said Frikkie. “Like you don’t care about farting in front of the dog, or letting it see you naked. And even when it comes into the bedroom while you are busy with your partner, you just tell it to fuck off back to its basket in the kitchen, and carry on with what you were doing. Yah, you don’t feel skaam at all.”

“It’s a version of a very old story,” said Plug. “If you dehumanise people it is so much easier to exploit and abuse them.”

“Yah, now you mention it and the more I think about it, it is kind of weird,” said Frikkie. “I mean, I would hate it if a friend or colleague could observe me the way Constance did. It would be a gross violation of my privacy, like having some pervert with his eye to the keyhole watching me in the shower. And then walk around knowing this about me, and maybe telling other people about what I get up to in the bathroom.”

“I bet Constance used to watch you through the keyhole,” said Plug. “You know, that after a time their role changes, and their job is no longer just doing the housework. They become forensic investigators, scrutinising every minute detail of your life.

They examine your dirty washing as they load the automatic, analysing odours and stains. As they hang the clothes on the line they picture you in them, especially your underwear. When they make the beds they are on the lookout for signs of sexual activity. Scrunched up toilet paper and tissues reeking of ejaculate and juice are there under the bed for the maid to pick up and dispose of. Your shameless behaviour confirms your deep lack of respect for her. And for yourself.”

“You seem to know all about it.”

“I do,” said Plug. “I’ve seen it with my own domestic, Blessing. She is far more of a curse than a blessing, but I am too scared of the consequences to get rid of her. You know, I have even seen her using her phone to photograph my stuff, including documents. They all have smart phones and can go home and blow up the images and analyse the info. In this way they are able to compile a body of evidence that cannot fail to have you convicted. The moment you fire them they hand you over to the tough guys who come round and administer justice. That’s what’s happened to you.”

“I know,” said Frikkie. “She knew the codes and the passwords, and she would have made copies of the keys.”

“Over the years she has been going home every night and reporting back to her husband, her kids, her relatives and her friends about all the grimy details of your disgraceful life, and telling them what a mean son of a bitch you are, and they have been urging her to steal as much as possible from you, in the way of sugar, tea, coffee, biscuits, sweets and chocolate, loose change, booze, toiletries, and just about anything she can lay her hands on without arousing too much suspicion. And when you eventually fire her there is unanimous agreement that you deserve the full treatment. And that’s what they’ve given you.”

“Don’t keep reminding me,” said Frikkie. He drained his beer, jumped to his feet, screamed, “Fucking lazy cunt!” and hurled the empty bottle at a tree some twenty metres away.

To Plug’s astonishment a man materialised out of nowhere and began raking up non-existent leaves as if this was his one-and-only chance of making it to Hollywood.

“Frikkie, this is a problem faced by all employers of domestic staff. It is now virtually impossible to dismiss a housekeeper, or even a gardener, no matter how unsatisfactory their performance might be, because you are then left in a suicidally defenceless position. Your expensively elaborate security system is reduced to junk status, and your only option is to relocate to another town. Or country.”

“Not a damn,” said Frikkie. “I know what I’m going to do if I end up with another Constance.”

“And what’s that?”


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