Nannies in South Africa


What stories from around the world are we not hearing about on the TV or in the news? Correspondent Elles van Gelder writes about the nanny phenomenon in South Africa, and how inequality is still very apparent there.

Zimbabwean housekeeper and nanny Nancy Simbi knows of many bad stories. Such as domestic workers who have their own cutlery, plate and cup because they are not allowed to use the employer’s tableware. She herself once had a boss who would get angry because she combed her hair in his house. She quit.

Nancy now works for the Du Toit family in Noordhoek, a seaside town close to Cape Town. When she came to the family ten years ago, she had just become a mother herself and was breastfeeding. The Du Toits were okay with her bringing her daughter to work and also showed an interest in Nancy’s life. “My parents and certainly grandparents would not have been likely to do that,” says Diane du Toit. “They viewed their maids very differently. There was no mutual respect. But fortunately things are changing. Do you know the saying that you need a village to raise a child? I have two part-time assistants, Nancy and Klara; they are my village.”

Diane has two children, a two-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. She had a versatile career before she became a mother. She worked at a PR agency, was a photographer on a cruise ship and ran her own transportation company. “When we had our son, I chose to stay at home,” she says. “But it sometimes felt so claustrophobic to be alone at home with a baby all day long. My husband can sometimes be away for months on end for his job, and I have no family in the neighborhood. I needed to be able to hand over my child to someone else occasionally, to take a walk on the beach. I also like this more than a nursery school: at home children feel safer and happier, especially during the first few years.”

And with two extra women in the house, both also mothers themselves, there is more knowledge at hand and possibly a different approach that works better. “My daughter is incredibly stubborn and has tantrums quite regularly,” Diane says. “I try everything in the books to get her to calm down, but at times when nothing helps, I sometimes lose it myself, too. That’s when Nancy appears with her soothing voice and my daughter suddenly perks up.”

  • Read the full story ‘Cape Town nanny’ in Issue 29.

Text and photography Elles van Gelder