Emigration 2: Leaving Home

One makes a life-changing decision for some time in the future and then … And then time goes by. The shock wears off. Denial (or futurism) creeps in.

It wasn’t until I was emptying my flat as my cleaning lady took possession of most of my bits and bobs that it really hit home.

The life of a cleaning lady

There are around 15 million South Africans of working age (out of a population of 41 million). Around 8 million have jobs. The rest don’t.

For 2 million uneducated, barely literate women there really is only one choice for earning a living. They clean the homes of the people who do have jobs. These are the cleaning ladies, or “Domestic Workers”. Maids, in other words.

Sometimes they live in and cook and clean and wash. Sometimes they turn up once a week to do some ironing and basic cleaning. They’re not paid much. The minimum Government-mandated wage is less than $1 per hour.

Since most white English-speaking South Africans battle with African names, these women call themselves mundane platitudes, like Beauty, or Faith, or Monica. I think half the cleaning ladies in Cape Town are called Monica.

Nothekanti (who calls herself Monica) has been working for me every Thursday for 12 years. Aside from her annual leave I think I can count on one hand the number of days she has missed work. Last year there was a crippling transport strike that stopped busses, trains and taxis. Bang on 7 am she rang the doorbell. Khayelitsha, where she stays, is some 50 km outside Cape Town. It’s a long way to come.

On a per hour basis, I pay her significantly more than the minimum wage, and as much as some of the junior consultants at the place I work.

In her mid-40s Nothekanti supports five children on her own. She cleans in different places on different days and she works her tail off. She barely speaks English and we have never really, in all the years she’s worked for me, had a lengthy conversation. Yet we still know a great deal about each other.

I helped her get a raise from her other employers after her home burned down five years ago during one of the township’s frequent shack-fire outbreaks. That was the week after her daughter was raped, but before her son was killed in another shack fire. She suffers from high blood-pressure and, I’m sure, severe trauma.

Her life is brutal and tough by any measure you care to name. Yet she is totally professional and totally committed. I reward and honour that as best I can.

But she is still only one of 2 million women looking for work as cleaning ladies. It doesn’t matter how awesome you are at a skill if it is significantly over-supplied.

Bringing it home

As I have gradually dismantled the life I’ve created in South Africa prior to heading to the UK in April, I have tried to find homes for all my responsibilities. My employees have been absorbed into other companies. My property has been willy-nilly distributed. I have my cameras left and my car (hint, hint, for anyone who wants a bargain).

I asked Nothekanti if there was anything of mine she might like to have. She looked apprehensive and then said, “Everything?” Since all the “big” things (like my stove, fridge and washing machine) had already gone, “everything” turned out to be a few free-standing lights, my microwave, some cupboards, kitchenware and other bits and pieces.

She arrived on Easter Friday with her brother and ten-year-old son in tow. Each thing she wanted she would look at me as if to say, “Are you really doing this?” And with each thing I would nod and say, “Yes.”

It brought it home, just what it means. Looking at my stuff, standing out in the sun before being loaded, I thought: this stuff is old, frankly quite hideous, but it’s mine. She also wanted some of the things that decorate my home. Souvenirs from my travels, large photographs I’ve taken and printed as posters. Something to hang on to from 12 years of working for someone.

She’s just an employee; I’m just her boss. But 12 years starts feeling a lot like family.

This morning I dropped her at the station. The last few items of furniture and all my books (some 15 boxes of them) are being shipped to Port Elizabeth, to my family. She cleaned up the dust and detritus left behind.

We said goodbye. And that was all; there wasn’t much to say.

Leaving the life

Yesterday, driving through Cape Town, I passed a billboard: “Cape Town mourns death of Ivan Toms”. That hurt, and I was crying.

More sensitive than normal, sure. But there are few people in the world that I can point to who had any impact on me during my life. Only one had any critical impact on my future career. That person was Dr Ivan Toms.

For two years from 1993, while a science student, I had volunteered to teach biology to learners from grades 11 and 12 from township schools. This was a program run by SHAWCO, the NGO run by UCT students. Apartheid was pretty much dead, but the legacy of poor education and limited opportunities was plain to see.

At the end of 1994 I was a confused 20-year-old. I was set on a career path I wasn’t sure of and had developed a small business training course that I wanted to trial as part of the general SHAWCO offerings. The head of SHAWCO at the time was Dr Toms.

Full of doubt and apprehension, I approached Dr Toms and presented my idea. At the time, I had no business training, no background in teaching entrepreneurship. Nothing but a scientist’s methodology and approach to problem-solving. Teaching small business was a side-issue for me; something I didn’t have great confidence in or understanding of.

I was used to the standard response of teachers, community leaders or other “leaders” I had presented ideas to over the years. I was prepared for being shut down. I was not prepared for what happened next.

Dr Toms was not just a tremendously talented doctor who led through charisma and example. He had another talent so rare, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced it with anyone else. He filled you with the belief that you could achieve, that you were capable and talented in yourself. He created enormous space for others to become self-confident and achieve in their own endeavours.

That sense of self-belief and self-confidence has never left me.

I left the idea of formal, “safe” employment behind me and dedicated myself to a profession in economic development. My small business teaching course became a large-scale project. Thousands of UCT students consulted to businesses across the Western Cape through my programs. Thousands of people started businesses as a result other projects I ran.

In 1996, Dr Toms finally got the chance he had wanted and moved to a government position in charge of public health. He is one of the word’s great heroes. An anti-Apartheid campaigner who went to jail for his beliefs, a doctor who chose to work in the middle of the war-torn townships where he was the only person caring for 60,000 people. A giant.

He has died at age 55 of meningitis. I wonder if he, too, was disappointed that the freedom he fought for is represented by people who won’t even provide antiretroviral treatments to pregnant mothers. President Thabo Mbeki continues to believe that HIV is a myth.

Reasons to go, reasons to stay

I visit clients whose businesses are running non-stop on generators, their investments falling apart as the government continues to piddle about with solutions to our electricity crisis. They tell me, “It’s good that you’re going. You’re young, you’ll make it again. I’m too old to go now. You’re doing the right thing.”

The head of a large firm takes me out in the moonlight and points out where the reflected light washes over the sea. No sound but the waves, and the smell of foam crashing on the shore. The stars are lost in the vastness of the African sky. “We are the only ones who can make this work,” he says. “People like us must stay and make it happen.”

I nod. It is beautiful. And I’m almost swayed. But not really. Under Apartheid we were fighting a system of governance that was consciously evil. How does one fight a system that declares that the evil it does is in the best interests of everyone? It isn’t my fight. Economic populism is the choice open to a majority-rule government. They have chosen it.

It won’t work as it hasn’t for Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez or any other despot who disregards minority rights in an effort to appease the majority.

I don’t have to “make” anything work. I didn’t create the problem. I, as with so many others, committed myself to ending the legacy of Apartheid. I didn’t bargain on a legacy of a newly-created populist dictatorship.

But, still, it is a beautiful country. There are many awesome leaders, astonishing people. It is just a shame that they have to fight so hard to implement common-sense policies.

At home, the packing is complete. Now come the farewells. People I won’t see very often and some, like Nothekanti, who I will never see again.

11 replies »

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  2. Beautiful, Gavin. No other word will do. Beautiful.

    The range of characters and emotions in this make it feel like a novel – or a grand memoir (hint, hint).

  3. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to learn about your work — and that of Dr. Toms. I, for one, would know nothing about South Africa if it weren’t for you. Keep us up to speed about your work in England.

  4. I was in my 13th year when I left and you remind me of the book my father was writing. He would read chapters nightly to my brother and I. Although never completed I always felt he should have written about the land that was harsh, cruel, beautiful and so very much a law unto itself.

    There is shining truth in your writing and once again I am reminded of John Galt.

    I wish you success in the UK – we have our problems with race but are willing to do something about integration…

    The white man is not welcome in South Africa. That is wrong. You did no wrong. You do not carry the sins of other white folk on your shoulders in this world. In the same way that blacks who commit crimes today do not get a pass because their ancestors endured slavery. Slavery has a long history with all the peoples in this world.

    Make a success of your life and I hope to buy your book one day. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Thanks for the support everyone ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The deeper message here (and through the series as I go) is to soften the harshness of much public discourse directed at migrants. Before there is immigration, there is a person breaking ties with everything they know in order to seek a better life.

  6. Thanks for your personal tribute to Ivan Toms. I was at UCT with Ivan in the 70s and (with other friends) shared some of his later journey over the years. He was a genuinely inspiring and innovative person. My family and I emigrated to the UK in 1993 for a variety of reasons. It is not SA, but it is a good place. Best wishes for your move.