28 April: One of my sisters has always been very house-proud, even before she had domestic help. With lock-down in South Africa being as fierce as it is, she is without help, elderly and has multiple health problems to boot. Keeping up is proving too much for her. I reminded her of the American comedian, Erma Bombeck’s theory on housework: “if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” She was not amused.
I actually prefer another of Bombeck’s sayings: “I can’t see the point of housework,” she said. “You clean everything and then six months later, you have to do it all over again.” I certainly didn’t expect to have to involve myself quite so much in the cleaning side of things until Covid-19 took away the option. When my cleaner sent a text yesterday suggesting that we go to the park for an hour or so while she cleaned, I cracked. We agreed elaborate hand-over procedures and next week I am at least partially free again. I reckon it is possible that, for me at least, housework could be more depressing than lock-down. Three laps of the park will do me fine while she works away.
One of the many things that used to distinguish Nelson Mandela from other important guests at big functions was that he would always ask to see the cleaners and the kitchen staff and personally thank them for their part in making the function a successful one. When you are locked up all those years as he was (27 to be precise) and you have to undertake all the menial but necessary tasks that keep your life orderly, you don’t take them for granted.
I saw this in action the first time I met Mandela. He was relatively newly released from prison and came to Durban to address the first ever combined meeting of the two big student associations in South Africa, one representing black students and the other representing white students. The Vice Chancellor’s residence was judged to be a secure enough place for him to have lunch and a rest before the meeting – and I was lucky enough to be his host.
We had a very lively and relaxed lunch and he regaled me with all sorts of stories about his life on the run. His staff had told me that, with his busy schedule, he simply had to have a 30 minute rest after lunch. So at 2pm I told him that he couldn’t imagine what his staff would do to me if I didn’t make sure he had a rest. “Ah!” he sighed. “I have gone from one prison to another.” And then, before he took a rest, he went into the kitchen to thank the staff hovering there and hoping for a glimpse of the great man.
P.S. His message to the students was “study hard and pass your exams. We need qualified people in our country.”