So, Janet Boateng has embarrassed her husband, the current British High Commissioner for South Africa, Paul Boateng, by allegedly bullying her staff. You may think, what is the big deal about this story. The big deal is, Paul and Janet are Black and staff in their home is predominantly Black. Given the history of the two, Janet, a former Labour Councillor who successfully managed to prevent White families from adopting Black children, on the grounds that White people could not begin to comprehend racism and Paul, the first Black government minister, there is the feeling that they should have known better. Between herself and her husband, back in the day, they were vociferous in fighting against injustice and inequality, especially when it came to Black people. I remember seeing Paul Boateng, one of the few Black faces, always ready to speak out against racism, cleverly articulating the Queen’s English to the max. He spoke out even more when the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sent troops to Iraq. Boateng’s reward was he was made British High Commission to South Africa. Some say it was a demotion but then that’s another story. The one I want to talk about is that now we have a Black President in the White House, and more and more Blacks taking on high-profile positions around the World, I wonder how they cope, leading a staff who must obey and indulge their every whim.
I, a Black woman, married to a high-profile Black achiever well-known in this country, finds it an ongoing dilemma. We came to this land about 18 years ago to work for an international organisation. What made it exciting were the perks – the mansion, the grounds, the pool and sauna and gym, and of course, there is the staff. One qualified, uniformed cook, two house-helps and two drivers plus security men. There were private schools for the children which was heavily subsidized. Initially, of course, I was over whelmed by what I had gained but given my humble background and life experiences, I was conscious of not taking advantage of the staff, always thanking them each time they brought me a cup of tea (and belting the kids around their heads when they didn’t say ‘thanks!’), making sure I brought presents each time I returned from an overseas trip. For several years, it was all bliss until things began to happen making me realise that my ‘niceness’ was perceived as weakness. For instance, I would ask the helper to sweep the floor in the living room. When I leave to do something and then return, the helper is lying on the couch, reading one of my magazines. This continues until I do something that I have not done in a while and that is argue. She threatens to hit me and I have no choice but to call in security to have her removed from the house. I walk in on the cook only to find him watching the cartoon, Tom and Jerry on the TV, and the steak he is supposed to be cooking, is burning to high heavens. When I challenge him, his eyes are glazed due to the wine he has drunk (and nicked!) and he refuses to leave. I leave to call the security; he slams the door and stands in front of it, not allowing me (and the children) to leave. Luckily, the security can see what is happening through the window and knocks firmly, gaining the attention of the cook, who eventually lets us out. When I sacked another cook for mixing up a strange concoction then refusing to tell me what it is made of, he turns up two days later at my company and threatens me. The worst of these experiences is of a woman who had worked for me for three years. When she stopped seeing her boyfriend, he decided to pay her back by showing me all the things she had stolen from the house. I was devastated. Although I don’t know all the facts, something tells me these experiences are not too different from what Janet was encountering.
But other than these experiences, there is another reason. I think, since I’m responsible for the upkeep of the house, I have to set rules but because I am Black there is some deep inherent thought within the staff that I am meant to treat them differently, i.e., there is no master and servant relationship here. We are all Blacks, so we are ‘friends’. I state this as I know there are rich White households elsewhere in this country and everybody knows their place. The article I read stated that the complaints were not against Paul but against Janet. Well, of course Paul will not be ‘attacked’ because he is not dealing with the staff on a day-to-day basis, but Janet is. Janet is, after all, only a human being. We are bound to get it wrong, bound to go overboard in imitating our colonial masters and still expect to be loved irregardless; because of our new-found status we expect everyone to bow and curtsy, figuratively that is. Janet, I’m sure made mistakes but I’m also sure that her staff had certain expectations from her which were not fulfilled. The woman, at the end of the day, sees her job as making sure her husband’s environment is comfortable at all times and she is determined to do that. I can’t believe that former wives at the High Commission were always polite to their staff. Here, where I live, everybody shouts at their staff. And that’s the truth and I hope Michelle Obama takes note