Amid the lockdown charity really does begin at home

A domestic worker carries out ironing duties.
A domestic worker carries out ironing duties.

Pretoria domestic worker Lindiwe (not her real name) found her world crashing down around her when lockdown began. When she arrived at the gate of her employer she was told not to come in and not to return until level 2 ... and no work, no pay.

I hope that shocked you. It’s the sort of thing that stokes revolutions. I don’t know that employer personally, and for all I know she is a kind person who donates generously to the Solidarity Fund. But solidarity begins at home. Every job counts.

The same applies to gardeners. Often a less formal employment category than domestic work, gardening calls for even more caring provision.

Many of us are fortunate to have employers who feed our bank accounts each month while we work at home, or even do not work. And I know many have respected their domestic staff in the same way, even when their own income has decreased.

One person who does not want to expose her helper to public transport has asked her to stay home while continuing to pay her, and then employed someone else who was already in her apartment block to help in the interim.

Few of us have the means to create jobs by growing businesses in the formal sector, but when it comes to domestic employment it is surprisingly easy to preserve a job or create a new one.

If every South African with an income who employs someone at home at least kept that person paid, some of the dreadful pain of the pandemic would be mitigated. But if that is the least we can do, there is more. Imagine if everyone with the unusual privilege of a secure and regular income could share that gift with others by contributing to another job! That would be so much in the spirit of the better SA that we have seen emerge in many ways during the pandemic. What a boost that would be for social cohesion!

We have probably benefited from reduced costs in the form of less call for petrol, entertainment, eating out and travel. That may add up to enough to cover someone else’s income. Maybe we could go further by sacrificing something we do want but do not actually need to survive.

Can we create a job for someone? Could your street do with some sprucing up? One person has made a point of phoning everyone he knows to check if they still have an income. After one call he was able to sponsor a part-time job for a gardener — on condition he grew vegetables to give to the hungry.

Some have supported businesses whose trade suddenly dried up. They “pay it forward” by buying in advance, or buying extra from those who earn commission. One lady who has forgone her monthly facial has given the person who attended her several months of tips in advance.

Charity can be patronising and sometimes people are given what they don’t actually need. But everyone needs an income, and maintaining or creating a job is an excellent way to contribute while preserving the receiver’s dignity. It’s a contract rather than charity.

A relative who lost his job told me last week how this focused his family on what is truly important. Let’s not deprive our children of discussing this lesson while it stares us in the face. This all helps to build the kind of supportive ecosystem entrepreneurs need to survive in the long term and a nation needs to survive adversity. And by practising generosity at home we can help develop values that promote a just and inclusive economic system based on a morality of respect.

• Cook is cofounder and chairman of the African Management Institute.


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