Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande Pic: Arthrob
Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande
Pic: Arthrob

A Couple of days ago I was invited to a gig at the Drill Hall downtown Johannesburg, opposite the notoriously crowded and busy Noord Street taxi rank.  We arrived fashionably late as always in time to hear the last band on the line up blasting its tunes to a half full glass gallery. It was strange to be out among former party people and friends.  The music performed by a new up and coming Afro-Rock-band BCUC, was too much to bear.  I stood between bobbing heads and watched as the band members sang their lungs out as if it were their last performance on earth.


Orange juice in hand, I went out to the balcony, for some air. The city streets offered some quiet room for idle contemplation.  Then Suddenly, as if listening to a documentary narration on the National Geographic channel I heard a beautiful baritone say, “Look at her, picking up, bag after bag, rubbish after rubbish, and no one is paying attention her, she does her work, quietly as if she’s performing” he mused and waited to let his words linger on the woman in blue overalls and a reflective jacket plastic bag in hand bending-over. “It’s a kind of performance.”   I searched for the voice with my eyes and found it coming from the mouth of the artist friend who invited us to join him on a night out to fend off a common condition among hip Jo’burgers called FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.  I wondered if this woman, someone’s grandmother, mother or aunt, wife, sister, friend, thought the same about her work as a municipal worker for Pick-It-Up (a municipal refuse collecting service).  A performance. His languid narration brought to mind a memory from childhood.  Bear with me as I connect the dots.   Here’s the story:


Domestic work in township slang is called – emakhishini – a Zulu word meaning Kitchens. I knew that my grandmother woke up every day as early as four in the mornings to catch the train and go to work Emakhishini, a place I imagined to be a massive large kitchen full of dishes and plates and my favourite: Shiny silver pots, pans and all manner of utensils.  In my mind’s eye my grandmother would report to work and fall in line next to other women and begin the task of washing dishes all day as if in a factory until it was time to come home.  Then one day my grandmother told me the unthinkable she said “today I am going to take you to work with me”.  “Really?” I exclaimed with all the excitement and enthusiasm an inquisitive, I’ll go anywhere as long as we’re on the road nine-year old could master. “I will get to see the huge kitchen that you work in?” Yes she said. Oh boy was I excited, finally I would have a story to tell to the other kids when schools re-opened.  Since I was petrified of trains, we took a mini-bus taxi.  I must have pelted her with questions all the way from Soweto to one of Johannesburg’s leafy Suburbs. We arrived to a cream-white  house with a pool  and yes I was a little disappointed at the size of it, since I had imagined that it would be some place huge and magnificent. The moment I entered the space – I felt as if I was walking into a movie set. Two younger white children (toddlers) sat on the carpet floor watching cartoons amid a river of toys strewn everywhere. The Mother crisscrossed down the passage, kitchen and lounge while shouting orders to Lefina, my grandmother. “Stay here, and play with the children” My grandmother instructed me while she went in for more instructions from her madam.

After the Madam and her husband left the house for work, I followed my grandmother into the kitchen where I was confronted with the biggest shock of my life.


Still today as I write this I am still trying to figure out just what was going through my mind and how I rationalized my imaginary majestic silver kitchen with  the reality of what  “emakhishini “  work actually  was.  I still don’t understand why I was so shocked by what I saw. Pots, plates, dirty cups, mounds of plates with half eaten dried out food  and sauces, mountains and mountains of Tupperware, some even fell to the floor, whose cream-white tiles were covered in black soot; it was so disgusting my head spun. I had never seen a house as filthy as that kitchen in my short life, with the exception of the beer house at the top of our street. But even they managed to wash the dishes once in a while. I couldn’t understand how grown people could live in such filth for days on end. The day of the week was Monday. “Wow “I exclaimed “don’t these people wash the dishes? “ I asked my grandmother “So all this time, Friday, Saturday, Sunday they don’t wash the dishes?” Why? I asked her, “Because it’s my job to wash the dishes” She replied already starting to clear out the dizzying mess. “They wait for you? for the whole weekend??”  I asked. Yes she said “that’s why you’re going to help me” she said. I immediately wished I had never said yes to my grandmother’s invitation. I couldn’t think just where I would even start to help her, the kitchen was such a mess; it was as if a hurricane, coupled with a bloody world war had taken place in that kitchen. Plus in my imagination my grandmother never worked alone, how was I supposed to help her?  The prospect of having to clean up brought tears to my eyes which I tried  desperately to hide from mama.


My grandmother consoled me and told me I shouldn’t worry she would clean up the kitchen herself; I was to help her with one small favour she said. “It won’t take long, and then you can join the other children and watch TV” she said, we didn’t own at a television set at home.  She said I would like you to help me clean the bathroom baby as she led me to the shower.  She said see these tiles, they used to be white but now as you can see they are almost black, if you can scrub them clean for me you will have helped me a lot she said as she cleaned one corner of the one inch by inch white tiles whose ridges had become black from decay and grime in demonstration. “Every single one of them?” I asked my heart sinking with each syllable. “Yes my baby” my grandma said with such a sweet pleading voice, I couldn’t disappoint her. The minute she left the bathroom I started crying, as I scrubbed every inch of that shower as if it were the last thing I would do. I had been in that bathroom for-ever, when my grandmother arrived and told me I had done a sterling job, better than she would have she said. “Now come eat and look after the other children” I followed her to a transformed kitchen, as if an angel had come and did a miraculous make-over. I was proud of my grandmother. But I missed her more, she had disappeared into the children’s bedroom and was now ironing their clothes,  she looked so lonely and alone I had never missed someone alive standing right in front of me like I did then. I lost all and any respect I had for white people. I resented how my grandmother told her madam how well I had scrubbed the bathroom making it look almost brand new. She was so proud. The Madam smiled at me, but all I wanted was to go home, with my grandmother to our little house with music and radio stories at 7, where she didn’t have to wash mountains of dishes.

Life as performance…

Maybe I have trouble with the idea because of that experience. Because I know that my grandmother was not engaged in some form of artistic Performance for the benefit of galleries or artists bored with their lives looking for a muse or inspiration.  It was not a performance scrubbing those tiny little tiles inch by inch.   The artists’ job is meant to challenge the norm, reveal new perspectives, ways of seeing the other but I suppose I have a problem with easy fantasies and eloquent conclusions.   I have a problem with world-renowned artist Mary Sibandes’ Glorified “Sophie” character in her critically acclaimed work “Long live the Dead the Queen” a domestic worker – maid – dressed majestically in regal, aristocratic, stoic yet still domestic uniform. I had never truly understood why until now.

Here’s the thing…

While I admire Mary Sibandes’ work and artistic talent and vision: I am just simply tired of efforts to try and glorify abusive behavior in the name of art.  I am just simply tired of being forced to make do, accept the inhumane working conditions which are simply put – an act – of continued slavery perpetuated by both the former colonial masters and increasingly the new African black bourgeoisie or middle class.  I simply just can’t stand it anymore, to watch and listen as people pontificate, subvert and what not with what is essentially people’s lives.  Here’s the thing, I don’t look down on Domestic work, or people who do this type of work. It is work. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning people’s homes and offices who can’t do it themselves, there’s nothing wrong with working as a municipal worker for Pick It Up, picking up refuse, cleaning the sewage etc. – work is work and as some would say, “someone has got do it” Restoring order in chaos is a talent, a skill which includes – all the skills required for you my learned friend to land that plum job at that corner office. Time management, organizational skills, project management, conflict management, people skills, culinary skills, child care abilities etc. So those who do this type of work must be paid and compensated with salaries consumerate with their skills, experience and hours spent at a job.   I think it’s high time that domestic workers are paid a living wage, and no that does not amount to the 150 bucks you spend on a dinner in a restaurant.  Domestic workers must be paid real wages,   close to what you would expect to be paid for a day’s hard labour.  A minimum of 6 -10 thousand rand a month, for picking up your soiled panties that you leave lying around or the tread marks of last night’s dinner that  you neglected to use a toilet brush to remove.  If you want someone to clean up after you and wipe your cute little behind you must be willing to pay and pay well for work well done, otherwise don’t patronize people by expecting them be grateful, for the change you give them for a full day’s work. If they need training, you as the employer must foot the bill, send them for further education and skills and pay them what they are worth. So that they too can plan ahead, advance their lives, send their children to school, buy a home, have choices and not live from hand to mouth in perpetual slavery to you.   Respect is not a platitude of fake smiles, hand me downs, hug and fake benevolence. Show respect by paying people a decent salary. Pay them money so that they can buy the clothes they want to wear, not some hand me down clutter and rubbish you pull out from your wardrobe and dump it on them because shame they are so poor. You must pay; otherwise learn how to clean up after yourself.  There’s no shame in domestic work, the shame is from you, you must feel ashamed that you expect someone to clean up your shit and then turn around and spit on them by disrespecting them and looking down on them.  You must be ashamed because you know you wouldn’t, would never do what you expect your domestic worker to do at the price you pay them.  (Please don’t say that’s why I went to school and got an education crap, you should know better by now, surely)

There are countless examples of people around the world who make money from organizing people’s homes and offices doing the cleaning, the dusting etc. There are even shows about it. And you expect “Sophie” to do it for free for you, giving her just enough money for transport and brown bread.  You are a slave-master. If you insist you must not complain when it’s not clean enough to meet your very high standards, you get what you pay for. Empowerment does not begin with some government policy or legislation, do the math oh you educated one and tell me if you could “live” on the pennies you give another. It’s not rocket science; failure to do this is slavery. It means you too are part of the problem not the solution. Start by recognizing that, that woman who cleans your house is a human just like you.   And treat her as you demand to be treated by your employers, give her the benefits you so righteously deserve too. Then maybe you can afford to “care-less” about their personal “issues”.  Anything  less than that is pure slavery.

Life is not a GOD-DAMN performance! Even that you pay good money for.


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