Josna Rege

228. The Mistress-Servant Relationship

In 1990s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, parenting, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on October 12, 2013 at 2:31 am
David's mother abandons him (from

A.I. Artificial Intelligence: David’s mother abandons him (

As I prepare to teach Sindiwe Magona’s Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, and Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People, both describing human relationships in a South Africa deformed by apartheid, the ugliness of the mistress-servant relationship impresses itself on me once again.

In an earlier TMA story, Servants, or Cleaning My Own D*** House!, I explored some of my reasons for doing my own cleaning, in particular the desire to do away with the pernicious master (in my case, mistress)-servant relationship and its attendant habits of mind, which, to me, perpetuate the ideologies of colonialism and slavery. In it, even as I endorsed Gandhi’s belief in the nobility of all work, I remembered my own resentment at having to do other people’s dirty work for them. But the humiliation and alienation of the servant is only one half of the dynamic of this inherently unequal relationship; understanding the other half requires us to consider how seeing another as a servant perverts the mind of the master.

It was a long time ago that I watched Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and my memory of it is hazy; I remember the terrible sadness of a cyborg child who was programmed to love his human parents deeply and was heartbroken to learn that he was not loved in return. But even more terrible was those parents’ persistent dehumanization of the boy who called them mother and father. At first they needed him because he was useful to them as a surrogate child; once they had their “real” son back, he was a supernumerary and a threat. But from the start, they saw themselves as his owners and soon saw him as a mere commodity, of non-use-value to themselves.

It will be readily acknowledged that the condition of being a servant damages the psyche of the servant. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro’s devastating novel The Remains of the Day drove that point home like no other. But it is less readily admitted that the condition of having a servant is equally destructive. That was what horrified, and continues to haunt  me about A.I.: that the parents were incapable of recognizing, let alone reciprocating, the child’s love. In this regard it mattered not whether the child was human or cyborg; what mattered was that the adults became less than human in their rejection of him.



In the mid-to-late 1990s, when Nikhil was just entering his teens, there was a computer game, pre-Tamagotchi, that allowed him to have a virtual pet, a little doglike creature that was wholly dependent on him. It lived for him and him alone. He had to remember to pet it, play with it, and feed it, and to do so consistently. When he entered its compound, it jumped up and wagged its tail wildly; when he was otherwise engaged it simply lay there pining for him, getting ever feebler and more forlorn. Whether or not the little fellow was real was immaterial; what was touching to me was how it brought out the loving, nurturing parent in Nikhil. (Unlike the parenting exercise required of him and his classmates in sixth grade, in which they each had to carry a doll around with them for a week as if it were a baby, and which most of the boys routinely forgot to feed.)

Any day now, we’re told, a really useful domestic robot will be available for purchase, eliminating the boredom of routine household chores and the nuisance, let alone the expense, of servants. To the extent that we look toward that day, I fear that we will fail to free our minds from the ugliness of the mistress-servant relationship. No, let’s call a spade a spade: if we buy that domestic robot, it will be a mere commodity: not a servant, but a slave.

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  1. I found it heartbreaking to read this post about the lack of love for others… and like you, found Remains of the Day almost unbearable…
    But I have to confess that I do have someone to help me do the vacuuming which I hate, the bathrooms and anything that she notices . My lovely helper doesn’t see herself as a servant, nor do I – she gave up her professional job to do this, plus waitressing at night, so she can spend time riding her two horses, and be her own mistress – she is beloved by all of us who are fortunate enough to employ her, and it is a relationship of equals.
    It ‘s like that in NZ. No-one would see themselves as a servant or inferior to anyone they worked for.
    It’s an egalitarian society where we are all called by our Christian names – by the bank tellers, the garage mechanic, or our cleaning ladies…
    Over the years I’ve had many other helpers, including our amah in Hongkong, who we all absolutely loved, and who we saw as a person, so there was no sense of her being less, or a servant.
    As long as people categorise people as other , we will have the dehumanising situations you and your commenter described. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
    I am grateful to my cleaning lady for helping me, she is grateful to me for employing her.
    We are friends. who spend a lot of time talking about animals, Rieki etc etc.Other people get her to help them at their dinner parties, and then she sits down with everyone at the table…

    • Thank you, Valerie, for reminding me that the relationship between people who need to pay for a service and people who perform that service need not be an unequal or a dehumanizing one. I am again, and perennially, impressed by the enlightened way of living in New Zealand. And it is an important reminder to me, as I am needing to engage and work closely with people to work as caregivers for my mother, that we can have a different kind of relationship that is mutually rewarding.

  2. A wonderful post Josna. Having grown up in Apartheid South Africa and having shared in the pain of opposing it and in the joy of it’s demise, my wife and I have voiced just something of our protest by doing all our own work within the home ourselves. Both our sons have been raised in that way as well. There is nothing more destructive than the mistress, or master servant relationship. In South Africa we have seen it and experienced it in all its rawness and inhumanity. In the past it has been racialised and rightly so because that has been its nature, but in post apartheid South Africa we are seeing something rather disturbing; the very people who were looked upon as servants and who experienced liberation are themselves keenly taking upon themselves the role of masters while making others their slaves. There’s no doubt that the master, or mistress – servant relationship has taken on a strong non – racial character. In South Africa we are beginning to see that this can’t simply be defined within the bounds of race or colour or even colonialism. It seems to be written universally in to the very heart of all humanity.

    • Thank you, Don, for your heartfelt response. You clearly speak from experience both during and after apartheid, something I have only read about. Although it’s understandable, it is very discouraging to hear that some people who had to endure the daily humiliation of servants under apartheid are now dishing out that same treatment to others. Let us hope that this is a passing phase that will diminish as the society meets more people’s needs and that education in the new South Africa—and elsewhere—finds ways to change people’s ingrained attitudes. I think you are quite right that this problem goes far beyond race, and fear that these dehumanizing master-servant relationships will continue as long as people are valued in terms of their earning power and as long as economic inequality continues to increase. The gap between the rich and the poor is still growing at an alarming pace in the U.S. and in much of the rest of the world as well. But there’s hope as long as people uphold and work to disseminate different attitudes and social relations, and people like you and your wife model different behavior for your children and your community. As always, Don, I so appreciate your comments.

  3. Interesting post with lots of good food for thought.

  4. I think you are absolutely right…a robot will be a robot no matter what. and we will treat him like a commodity, just like we treat our fridge or the mixer grinder !

    • Thank you for your comment, Ria. Yes, I think that treating others in our lives like commodities, like things–just in terms of what their usefulness is to us–makes us less human, more like things ourselves.

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