ON the day Nelson Mandela died in 2013, a crowd gathered on the pavement outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Black women arrived from every direction, lit candles, sang and danced in their own languages, dominating the neighbourhood. Their sadness at losing Mandela was huge, but equally palpable was the mood of optimism for the future he had made possible.
It is common knowledge that the country has not done justice to Mandela’s vision. Even ratings agencies such as Moody’s can see it, and the citizens who are fleeing elsewhere. Black South Africans are no better off today than when Mandela emerged from jail. Many people have benefited little from democracy, even if they have freedom of speech, which doesn’t put food on the table. Most black South Africans are still desperately poor.
In the United States, another great person who died on 5 August also had a dream for the black diaspora. Nobel Laureate in literature Toni Morrison attempted to do through her literature and personal greatness what Mandela tried to do for black South Africans: eliminate the racism that tormented them. Yet today there is a resurgence of the racism towards black Americans that she abhorred, as evidenced by the rising of the alt-right movement.
One thing Morrison emphasised was that the hardships in society are often borne more by black women than men. The dignified dance by women outside Mandela’s house had a similar message. Platitudes praising all kinds of women are everywhere, but one category has received insufficient attention: the black nannies who look after white families in Glenhazel and other northern suburbs of Johannesburg, and have done so, thanklessly, for decades.
Aside from what the nanny must do inside the house: clean, make the beds, cook and so on, an abiding image for South Africans is the group of nannies sitting on the pavement outside where they work for white madams, clad in aprons, with doeks on their heads. They often have their legs stretched out straight in front and the white children with them.
As with the male ‘servants’ – as they were referred to by white people – they lived in small ‘servants’ rooms, usually at the back of the house, sometimes with special gates from the street.
Have their lives changed since black women sang on the pavement outside Mandela’s house in 2013? It depends on their employers. But in general, to the shame of rich Jewish South Africa, many are still not paid a living wage. Women who once were tasked to carry white people’s babies on their backs, while their own children were neglected in townships, have been ‘repurposed’ to be so-called carers for the elderly. Their families in rural areas are still poor and their sons and daughters still don’t have jobs.
Disillusionment in the country has gone so far since Mandela’s time, that even mentioning his name today in some political quarters will be seen as naïve. Incredibly, there are even people who refer to him as a ‘sell-out’ because he chose at the end of apartheid to hold secret negotiations with the very people who wanted to leave the country with their money.
There are other legendary black South African women to be celebrated in Women’s Month. Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela. But the humble black women who raised their families during apartheid, often alone while their husbands lived in migrant hostels or elsewhere in the cities, in the mines or other places, bore the brunt of the struggle. Not only do white employers today not recognise or pay them properly, in many cases they don’t even know their surnames.