My subconscious registered the formal Zulu greeting and the response came unbidden to my lips.
“Yebo, ngisaphila, wena usaphila, na?” I surprised myself by how much Zulu I know.
“Yebo, ngiyabonga, umfaan”
I cringed at the repetition of the diminutive “umfaan” (meaning “young man”). I shook my head mutely and raised my hand above my head to indicate I have grown. “Not, umfaan any more, Emilina!” I exclaimed.
“Kha” Emilena clicked firmly and pointed at John, my uncle (her employer). “Him, baas” she said “you” she added with finality “umfaan”.
I suppose at the age of 81, it’s entirely her right to label me thus. Emilina remembers me as a small child and she has played a big part in raising many of my cousins. You see, Emilina is John’s “girl” meaning she works at the house doing chores such as cleaning and minding his (now grown up) children who are Sherilee, Greg and Bradley. Before that, she worked for Linda, minding my cousins Simon, Nicky and Lauren.
This concept of a “house girl” is still relatively common in South Africa, though those outside the country may see it as rather odd. It’s quite normal for people to “loan” their girl out to friends a few days a week to do the washing, clean the floor or suchlike. Some relatively well off people used to have their “girl” live on site. We had a servants’ quarters at our home in Westville, even though our house itself was not all that big.
It probably comes as no surprise to you then that the male equivalent of a “house girl” is a “garden boy” who tends the garden. There was a time in South Africa’s dark history when black people were only educated in domestic chores or gardening, and it was the “bantu education act” of 1953 that robbed generations of black people of an education and (in my opinion) is responsible for the crime and squalor that we see today.
A less apparent consequence of this social structure is that the children can develop a very strong attachment to their African minders, so much so that my cousin Bradley is said to have both a “white mother” and a “black mother”. At his wedding reception, Bradley reserved a moment in his speech to pay tribute to his “black mother”, all delivered in perfect Zulu. He cried, and there was not dry eye in the whole place during his speech. It’s very touching, very special.
It still is a rather strange relationship. Emilina did not sit with the other people at the dinner tables during the reception. Even when I warmly invited her to join us, she flatly refused. A family member told me they had once warned Emilina ”Don’t get white!” when she took to eating lunch at the dining room table. Now, please don’t be too quick to judge them for that choice of words, it’s a result of the cultural context they have lived in, not who they are.
Now, personally, having lived in New Zealand’s cultural context for quite some time, that kind of comment sticks in my mind as a reminder of how far South Africa still has to come with respect to race relations. As I watch TV here though, I do get a sense of a tension between an almost frantic political correctness on the one end of the discussion and an equally stubborn reluctance to change on the other. For me to say I have the answer to the problem would be highly presumptuous, so I won’t even hazard one.
I shook Emilina’s hand and gave her a hug as I left, knowing I was unlikely to see her again. “Is it…. Sala kahle?” (stay well) I tried tentatively. “Ngiyabonga gakulu” she nodded and smiled. It’s too late for her and probably too late for her children, but maybe her great grandchildren will be able to see the world through a lens uncoloured by race. In the meantime, stay well.