Among other things, Grace Ntsimane has done the following for Pat van Rensburg over the past five years; washed the clothes, ironed them, vacuumed, dusted, made the beds, answered the phone, polished the floors, washed the toilets, made meals, washed the dishes, looked after Pat's children "as if they were her own," listened to Pat's problems and shared her jokes.
By South African standards, it is normal fare for a black live-in domestic servant working for a middle-class white family.
What is not so common, however, is that a few weeks ago Pat was preparing to go to jail because of Grace's child, Tsepo -- a name that means "hope."
As a maid and "madam," Grace and Pat were caught up in the administration of the unique and strange society of South Africa. Their story does not portray dramatic stakes of life and death but rather the everyday moral choices thinking whites are confronted with and the daily "occupational hazards" blacks face as a result of the Kafkaesque and comprehensive skein of laws the white minority government has drawn up to maintain its control over where blacks live and work.
It began one day in February as Ntsimane was ironing in the kitchen of the Van Rensburgs' brick ranch-style house in Randburg, a town north of Johannesburg. Two-month-old Tsepo, her second living child (two died from sickness), lay on a towel in the hallway. Two government inspectors -- one white, one black -- materialized outside in the yard, where the black gardener was working, to make a routine check on the papers of the Van Rensburgs' employes.
When they heard Tsepo cry they asked if there was a baby on the premises. The gardner lied: "It's the madam's baby." Undaunted, the black inspector poked his head in the kitchen and saw Tsepo -- unmistakably not a "maddam's baby."
Like all black children born of Tswana parents since 1976, Tsepo is not a South African citizen according to the government.
Rather, he is a citizen of Bouphuthatswana, the enclave set aside for blacks of the Tswana tribal group, which the government in 1976 declared an "independent" state. No country except South Africa has recognized Bophuthatswana as an independent country, because it is regarded as part of the apartheid system which aims to carve up South Africa into 10 "independent" black states and one white state as a way for the white minority to maintain its control over the black majority.
Ntsimane was born 37 years ago in what is now Bophuthatswana, so she also is one of its "citizens." Like thousands of other Tswans, however, she seeks work in the big cities because there are few jobs in the rural, underdeveloped homeland.
She is allowed to work in Randburg as a migrant laborer on one-year renewable contracts. She has government permission to live on the Van Rensburgs' property -- alone. Under the law, Tsepo is supposed to live in Bophuthatswana, presumably with relatives, 60 miles away, even though he is still being breastfed. The stark choice for Ntsimane: stay with her job or her son.
Her husband, Amos, is also a citizen of Bophuthatswana and has permission to work as a driver in Randburg as a migrant laborer. But his terms of employment say he must live not with his wife, but in an all-male hostel in the nearby black-worker dormitory township of Alexandria.
"By law, the family has got to live in three different places," said Van Rensburg, 42, as she sat in her living room.
"In town of Randburg, with about 65,000 whites and an estimated 35,000 blacks, we are supposedly not to have one black child," she said.
"These laws make every housewife a potential criminal. It could happen to anyone. Most who have maids have allowed their children and husbands to live with them."
The inspectors left a court summons for Van Rensburg, who at the time of their visit was in Cape Town visiting her husband, an opposition member of parliament. It charged she had violated an agreement she made when she "registered" Ntsimane at the local labor bureau -- another requirement for all black workers and white employers. The document stated that "as a specific condition of Ntismane's employment she will not be allowed to introduce any of her children/dependents into the area of Randburg." By allowing Ntsimane to keep Tsepo with her, Van Rensburg had broken this legal agreement.
She could have paid $37.50 as an admission-of-guilt fine, but "by paying the fine I would be agreeing that the law is valid. I would be acquiescing that the government could separate mothers and babies." Instead, she decided to contest the charge in court to "highlight" this "wicked" law.
As a member of Randburg's town council and county council, Van Rensburg is not lacking in political savvy. But she also had never before been in court as a defendant, not even for a traffic offense.
Conducting her own defense, she cross-examined the white inspector. When asked whether he verified if the babies he ordered back to the "homelands" had homes to go to and food to eat, he replied that this was not his job.
Van Rensburg asked if it was one of his duties to go from house to house looking for illegal black babies. He answered that it was.
Not unaware of the press in the courtroom, the presiding magistrate said he wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding and repeated the question to the inspector. Agaiin the answer was straightforward: "Yes."
"It sounds as if we are in the days of Herod, marching from door to door looking for 'illegal' babies," Van Rensburg said afterward.
Summing up, she called the incident "an example of the vicious and inhuman system of apartheid as its very worst" and declared that "if I am found guilty and sentenced, I will not pay a fine but elect to serve a prison sentence."
In the end, the magistrate decided that discretion was better than vigorous application of the law. After finding Van Rensburg guilty he sent her home with a warning, avoiding the embarrassing situation of imprisoning the wife of a member of parliament.
Ntsimane, who has worked as a maid for 19 years, seems a bit flustered by all the fuss. Holding Tsepo, she said in halting English: "I was very upset. I felt sorry for 'madam' if she said she can go to jail. I was feeling sorry for the trouble she had."
Friends have told her that she has "got a good 'madam' -- she likes you." Ntsimane thinks most whites would not do what Van Rensburg did because most "don't like a black to be a person. I told my madam that other white people won't like what you did forme."
But Van Rensburg says the reaction she was gotten has been "overwhelmingly favorable -- even from Afrikaners," the whites of Dutch descent who dominate the government.
Van Rensburg says she has no illusions that her protest will alter the so-called "pass laws" but "if it has made some white people think about these laws, then it has achieved something. People must examine their consciences and do what is right."
But the fact remains that in similiar situations most whites pay the fines, offering no more protest than if they were tickets for speeding. Van Rensburg is part of the minority of whites who choose to go a bit further, and so it is fitting that a tyke named 'Hope' lives with the Van Rensburgs -- at least until the inspector returns.