Shannon is a friend of my sister’s who now lives in Virginia after being born and living in South Africa for fourteen years. She shared with me a few common South African proverbs, but cited this particular one as her favorite due to its meaning.
“So a common saying in South Africa is ‘Even the maid has a family.’ Basically it means to be kind to everyone, you know, that everyone, even the people considered lower-class, has their own life and goals and problems and that you shouldn’t mistreat people just because you’re in a position of power. That’s important in South Africa because even after Apartheid not all the class and racial issues have been settled. But… yeah. Basically it’s just a reminder that we’re all human.”
In South Africa, it is standard for middle and upper class households to keep a maid. When I stayed in the country a few summers ago, I thought it was very unusual that perfectly capable families would hire help to deal the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. It always struck me that, at the end of a long day of housework, the maid would have to go home and tend to the stresses of her own household. Where I stayed, the maid was treated as part of the family, but I was told that this is not always the case. Depending on the household, a maid could be a sort of super tidy aunt-figure or be treated as a servant.
The maids in South Africa were always black, but the reason for this was more economical than racial. Anyone with reasonable financial means kept a maid. White homes hired black maids, black homes hired black maids – it was simply that after years of oppression and discrimination, the bottom of the economic ladder in South Africa is composed mostly of black people, who therefore would be the ones hired as unskilled labor.
Beyond the literal interpretation of direct referencing maids and the custom of keeping house-help and the racial implications that come with that, I think Shannon analyzed the proverb well. Whether black or white, rich or poor, intelligent or uneducated, every person has their own set of joys, sorrows, stresses, relationships, and goals. Financial, social, political, or any type of power doesn’t warrant abuse of those in a lesser position. We’re all human.