Say bye to the tannie in the kitchen

Every time I return from the UK where I currently live, I marvel at the availability of hired help. I have become accustomed to filling up my own car, no cleaners (ok sometimes as I get overwhelmed by my own ineptitude to clean properly), scanning my own groceries (no people don’t run off without paying although cases have been seen of people weighing carrots and punching in much more expensive avocados) and bagging my own groceries. Expats get used to doing all the tasks that South Africans so easily pawn off to less-paid workers. As I berate South Africans for being so comfortable; they tell me they employ so many people because they create jobs for their gardeners and nannies who would not otherwise be employed. But all the help available to South Africa’s middle class may soon be seen as a luxury as the pressure on the middle class, which is shouldering the bulk of the tax burden in the country, is increasing. Veteran journalist Ferial Haffejee has also recently warned that the middle class is starting to crack under the strain. The consequences of a disappearing middle class for the scores of people who are employed by, could be devastating and push unemployment levels even higher. Andrew Kenny writes in the Daily Friend, kindly republished here with permission that the role of the servant should be relegated to the past. The question is: how would the people who fulfil these role in South Africa with its high unemployment rate find other work? Kenny suggests that we have to look at a solution for a more productive workforce and I would add, rather sooner than later. – Linda van Tilburg

The role of the ‘servant’ should be relegated to the bad old past

By Andrew Kenny*

Our economy needs to be freed so that everybody can get a proper, useful, productive job.
Andrew Kenny

Amid the disastrous unemployment in South Africa, it is a disturbing fact, known by everyone but seldom mentioned, that there is a huge army of South Africans doing jobs that are completely unnecessary. Were all these people to lose their jobs, no employers would notice except for a big savings in salaries.

I recently visited a lady friend in Cape Town. She lives alone and has inherited a house. With the house comes a domestic worker and a gardener. Both come to her once a week. Both are unnecessary. She can easily do her own housework and could easily use gardening services once every three months to tidy up her small garden. She keeps them out of a sense of responsibility. Their employment relies on her kindness not her need.

Visiting Gauteng and Mpumalanga last month, I stayed with friends in large houses and a small farm. It was the same story. They all keep domestic workers and labourers they do not need, and they support their children and families on their properties, feeding them, housing them, helping with their illness and their children’s education. Some even feel bound to pay pensions for them when they retire. The employees have become dependants.

If any of these friends were to fall on hard times (quite likely now) or if the labour laws were further tightened to make it too expensive and dangerous to employ domestic workers, all these people would lose their jobs and their accommodation.

I have worked for factories in England and South Africa. In England, the artisans – boilermakers, fitters and electricians – all prepare, carry and clean their own tools. In South Africa, the artisans, usually white, have labourers, usually black, to fetch, carry and clean for them.

At a mill in KZN in the 1990s, we needed a large new tank for a corrosive liquid. It was not complicated but needed to be made to a high standard, with correct nozzle orientations. It was so large it had to be constructed on site. The mill went out to tender locally, asking the bidder, for security reasons, to state the size of the workforce he would be bringing onto site. There were several bidders, all charging about R2m and bringing about 20 workers. Just out of curiosity, the mill decided to offer a foreign company, Swedish, a chance to bid. It bid R1m and said it would use 3 workers. The mill was amazed but decided to go with the Swedes. Sure enough, 3 ordinary looking Swedish workers came on site with ordinary looking tools and equipment, and without fuss constructed the tank perfectly and in short time.

In my street in Cape Town, on rubbish collection day, a company called Kleenbin, comes around with a bakkie and cleaning equipment to clean the emptied bins. A white man, looking very important, sits in the cab while a black man cleans the bin. Personally, I never use Kleenbin because I am able to clean my own bin in a few minutes and my bin never gets dirty anyway because I put all my rubbish in plastic bags.

In England, Europe and the US, it is so easy, so quick, so luxurious to fill your own car with petrol at a filling station. You simply drive up to a pump, fill up your tank, swipe a credit car and drive off in 3 minutes. In South Africa it can take up to 20 minutes. You have to wait patiently at a petrol pump until an attendant, cheerful or surly, deigns to come to the pump and do what you could do yourself. It is especially difficult in my case since my car is small, old and dilapidated (a 1984 Suzuki SJ410) and often I have to wait while the attendants serve big expensive cars who come after me. I’d pay extra if I could serve myself.

All these people employed in these unnecessary jobs are lucky that their employers are not like me. I am selfish, mean-minded and self-reliant. I find the master-servant relationship abhorrent. I hate ‘servants’ making my bed or washing my clothes; I find it an invasion of my privacy. I want to do everything for myself. I have never employed a domestic worker and never will. If I had my way, all petrol stations would be free to offer self-service, and all artisans would have to fetch and clean their own tools as in the productive economies of Europe, Japan and the US.

A friend once told me that anybody who can afford to employ a ‘servant’ had a moral duty to do so. Wilbur Smith, who keeps a large entourage of staff, agrees. I don’t. I should much rather our economy be freed so that everybody can get a proper, useful, productive job and that the role of the ‘servant’ be relegated to the bad old past.

  • Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal. The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR. If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.