Zukiswa Wanner “The Madams”

When the Covid-19 pandemic first took the world by storm in 2020, I made it my duty to read more literature written by African womxn writers. A writer whose work I resonated with is Zukiswa Wanner’s because her writing style is light-hearted and leans towards dark humour. 

Her books explore issues affecting black men and women in South Africa; she writes about the intersections between gender norms, the queer community, race, class, and city life pressures. Born in Lusaka to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother, her books explore how white and black communities in contemporary South Africa interact. 

The Madams…

Follows the protagonist, Thandi, a black South African woman who is content with her successful position on the tourism board. Thandi is a happy mother and wife to Hintsa and Mandla. Thandi, in my opinion, represents the modern African woman; she is trying to balance being the ideal wife and mother while also being a successful working woman. The novel is set during a time when the black middle class was growing, and the central premise of this story is Thandi’s desire to hire a white maid, ex-convict Marita.

‘The Madams’ through humour, examines the shock and dismay expressed by the people in Thandi’s life with her decision as a black South African woman to hire a white maid. Her friends, confused, feel like Thandi needs to hide the fact that she is considering hiring a white maid, as though Thandi is doing it as a practical joke. 

Let’s talk about race baby….

In 2021 Netflix released a miniseries called “Maid” following a young single mother’s journey and emancipation from her abusive partner. Alex, the protagonist, takes the job as a maid in in current-day America to try and make a better life for her and her toddler, and the series exposes how broken the welfare system is, and how easy it is to slip below the poverty line. The miniseries was tear-jerking but drew in several criticisms. 

Namely, what if Alex was a woman of colour? Would the outpouring of support and empathy for the struggles of this character be the same? Allegra Fran expresses that the miniseries is as popular as it is because Alex is a white woman.1 More than 61 per cent of domestic workers are people of colour (despite making up less than 40 per cent of the American workforce) and more than half of black and brown domestic workers live in poverty. 

So many people live like this, people who don’t look like Margaret Qualley.2 According to a 2017 University of Florida College of law study, black girls are perceived as needing “less protection and nurturing”.3 While white women are seen as more delicate and needing protection. The strong black woman stereotype has led to a perception that black women especially are more resilient and therefore “better suited” to labour intensive work. Domestic workers in South Africa were traditionally black women because domestic work is labour intensive, and black South African women did not have the same access to education as white South African women.4

Wanner explores why a white woman taking a maid’s job with a black employer is seen as ‘lowly’ or embarrassing. Marita becomes an unlikely bourgeois accessory for Thandi because Marita’s job is seen as a means to an end, or as entertaining for the time, rather than her entire identity. But we still see how stressful being a maid is, irrespective of your race, to the point that there is a scene in the story where all the maids get high on edibles to deal with the pressure of dealing with the ill-behaved children they have to look after. 

Beyond her out-of-the-box content, one of the things that I admire about Zukiswa Wanner’s writing is the fact that she writes about contemporary middle-class South Africa is because she is tired of Africa being looked at as an impoverished continent. She proves that she is not just a talented black African female writer but that she is a talented writer, period. She writes about themes that relate to people like her but also goes the extra mile to research other communities and backgrounds, so all the characters are three dimensional. 
              As a writer, I admire the authenticity in her work and characters; and the way she writes about Thandi and Marita without any prejudice or bias seeping into the work. Although it is a work of fiction, the social realism genre in The Madams is a refreshing style of writing. The Madams is a political piece of work while still being an entertaining piece of literature. 

Footnotes
  1. Frank, Allegra. “Would Maid Be a Hit If Alex Were Black?” Slate Magazine, 11 Nov. 2021, slate.com/culture/2021/11/maid-netflix-domestic-workers-race.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2022.
  2. Reindl, Andrea. “People Are Asking on Twitter: Why Isn’t the Protagonist of the Netflix Miniseries ‘Maid’ a Woman of Color?” We Are Mitú. 100% American & Latino, 7 Oct. 2021, wearemitu.com/wearemitu/entertainment/why-isnt-the-protagonist-of-netflix-maid-woc/. Accessed 27 Jan. 2022.
  3. Jacobs, Michelle. 2017. “UF Law Scholarship Repository the Violent State: Black Women’ S Invisible Struggle against Police Violence.” https://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1828&context=facultypub.
  4. Hickson, Joyce, and Martin Strous. “The Plight of Black South African Women Domestics: Providing the Ultraexploited with Psychologically Empowering Mental Health Services.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1993, pp. 109–122, www.jstor.org/stable/2784544. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.