15 March 2010

I’ve mentioned before that Sandton, this northern suburb of Johannesburg where we are staying, is often referred to as “Africa’s richest square mile”. There’s money here – big global businesses, malls with all the international brands, luxury cars and spas and hotels, wealthy residential estates with security guards and four BMWs and numerous staff (with their own staff quarters). The lifestyle of the Sandtonista means that I still pay NYC prices for breakfast – mostly because I’m too traffic-avoiding, or hungry, or lazy to drive elsewhere. (Believe me, I’m more than appalled that I just used “lazy” and “drive” in the same sentence, since the cafe where I’m currently breakfasting is about the same distance as the walk I take every day from our NYC apartment to the subway. But I drove here….lazily.)

When in Rome…

Given that I’m rapidly adjusting to the Sandtonista lifestyle (minus any designer outfit), I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to open the March 2010 issue of South Africa’s Shape Magazine and find this article:

“Looking after your domestic”, the “your” so overtly possessive, so powerful, so white. The picture emphasizing the point – you’re white, your domestic is black.

Yet, here in Sandton, this picture is accurate. Ever since the “white flight” from downtown during and just after the struggle years, a largely white elite has been thriving in the northern suburbs, with the black majority filling the economic stratum of supporting service roles. It’s just the way it is, I suppose one could say. Isn’t the magazine just being relevant? Shouldn’t I just be thankful for all of the employment the sector creates?

The article offered some suggestions on how to be a good employer to your domestics, from health insurance to vacation to pension funds. It reiterated the laws around monthly minimum wage: 1442.86 Rand, which is 7.40 Rand/Hour for domestics working more than 27 hours per week.

Let me put it this way: I’m on my second cappuccino – 18 Rand (each). I had one of the cheaper breakfasts on the menu – 50 Rand. At today’s foreign exchange rates, 7.40 Rand is exactly 1.00 USD. A dollar an hour to wash my dishes, clean my house, make my dinner, look after my children, do my laundry!

I have a Master’s degree in International Business. I know better than to flip out at mere exchange rates. One has to look at the bigger picture, the pricing parity for what 7.40 Rand can buy in the places the domestics return to at the end of the day – the places they call home, where they buy food, pay rent, take their children to school. I assume Diana, who cleans our apartment each weekday, does not pay 18 Rand for a cappuccino in Soweto where she lives with her children. But, honestly, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how much she makes, or how much she pays in rent, or if she has money to spare.

All I know is that shelling out 100 Rand for breakfast in Sandton while reading about the hourly wages of domestics makes me feel unsettled. It highlights the enormous disparity between the rich and the poor here in South Africa, the former who are still predominantly white, just like the picture in the magazine. And just like me, an accidental Sandtonista. Ugh.