I’m reading Reports Before Daybreak by Brent Meersman. It’s set in the murky 80s in the South Africa of my teens. There is so much to discuss about this book and that time – the boys who were sent to the army to fight ‘the enemy’; the ‘terrorists’, treated so savagely by the apartheid army; the brainwashing we were all subjected to; the secrets… and the ‘maids and madams’. It is this last bit that is really disturbing me about this book. Perhaps it’s the clever way he tells the story from both the ‘maid’ Alicia’s and her daughter Zukiswa’s perspective. And although we are never privy to ‘Madam’ Jennifer’s thoughts, what comes out of her mouth gives us a good idea of her take Alicia’s role. The utter lack of regard she has for Alicia’s feelings and time and home life leaves me so uncomfortable. Because there were so many Jennifer’s in those dark days. And I fear there are many Jennifers lurking among us still today.

While there are stark contrasts in the living conditions of almost every employer and domestic employee – the fact of the relationship means this must be so for who would choose to clean someone else’s mess for a low wage if they had other options, the relationship needn’t be one of servant/master provided that the employer sees the humanity in their employee. I have recently finished the magnificent The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Set in Georgia during the height of slavery, the story tells of Cora, a slave who dares to try and escape the cotton plantation on which she was born. A gripping story, the book left me incredulous at a world that considered people to be possessions, a world in which the master could do as he pleased with his slaves, who had no rights at all because they were things to be owned and sold.

And now, in reading Zukiswa and Alicia’s thoughts at the manifestly unjust imbalance of power in their lives, in seeing them having to bite their tongue and endure whatever the Madam and Master throw their way, I wonder – have we really come all that far from the days of slavery?
Do domestic workers at the mercy of cruel employers really have any more rights than the slaves of yesteryear, at least in any meaningful way? Does poverty enslave its victims in a way that renders their freedoms irrelevant?

Is Alicia really better off than Cora?