Julia is her “good name”. The name she gives to white people. It’s how she introduces herself to us, half out of breath, as she runs up and climbs into the cramped back seat of our car to catch a lift over the mountain and to the next town. When she sees Sindiso, she smiles out of more than deference and pipes up a greeting in isiXhosa. Nomsa is her real name.
She’d been waiting on the road for a while, she says, maybe an hour or two? To try the mountain pass on her own two feet–some 20 kilometers and plenty of elevation gain–is a bit too much to ask of a gogo (grandmother) in her sixties.
Is she on her way to work or home, I ask? To work, she says. Nomsa explains that she missed her early train that morning because the two grandkids she is raising had trouble getting out of bed and to the creche on time. When that happens, her only choice is to take a shared taxi to the mountain pass, where it stops, and try her luck with the steady stream of passing cars.
She’s had enough experience by now. Some mornings, with kids aged two and five and mom and dad not around, things just don’t go as planned. Other mornings, the trains don’t run at all from her township in the Flats because of fire or strikes or technical difficulties.
On a good morning, Nomsa explains, when everything runs on time, it’s a 1-to-2 hour commute around the mountain–by way of two taxis and two trains–to get to the big white house behind the high wall where she has been the maid for the last 26 years.
She has cleaned many homes since age eighteen. What else was there to do when the government would not let her go beyond standard six (grade eight) in school and money at home was scarce? The first homes she cleaned were those of her in-laws in the rural (then-) Transkei, as pass laws kept her from the city where her husband was brought to work the factories.
The end of apartheid in 1994 brought the end of the pass laws and other legal restrictions on Nomsa’s rights–but not a great deal more than that, from where she stands. Cleaning homes just doesn’t pay enough and a modest monthly childcare grant from the government–a necessary but hardly sufficient support for some 16 million South Africans living in deep poverty (amounting to roughly 3% of GDP)–doesn’t quite close the gap to a decent life, much less retirement.
She’s tired, she says matter-of-factly, but the kids still need to be raised. They need to eat and go to school if they are to have any hope of escaping the poverty trap she’s in. But when government ministers report 65 percent unemployment among township youth and the Economist itself says 80% of South African public schools are “dysfunctional”, their prospects don’t look good.
Then we arrive at the big white house behind the high wall where we drop her off and say goodbye, before it’s off to our appointment in town.
Just another day in South Africa, eighteen years after the end of political apartheid and still waiting for economic apartheid to bite the dust…