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Working in the kitchens

The Story of Robert Ramathoka Seise

Modjadji is a place near Duiwels­kloof in the Northern Transvaal. Mangoes and bananas grow wiId on the side of the mountain at Modjadji.

In Modjadji the fruit does not grow behind high brick walls. The fruit grows in the open air. The fruit belongs to everybody.

Near the top of the mountain at Modjadji you can see five small huts. The huts are made out of brown clay and dry grass. These huts are the home of Mr Robert Ramathoka Seise.

Ramathoka’s famiIy grave yard is behind some trees near his home. The graves are very old. The Seise family has lived in Modjadji for many years.

Ramathoka Seise was born near these graves. His parents did not go to school. So he does not know the year of his birth. But he thinks he was born at the time of the first big world war.

Ramathoka’s father was a Mopedi from Modjadji and his mother came from Venda. Ramathoka’s grandmother was very friendly with the Batsonga.

“Those Shangaans gave me my name,” says Ramathoka. “When they came to visit my granny, they found a new baby. The new baby was me. And they said, ‘This is the friend of Bathonga. We will call him Ramatonga!.”

Ramathoka went to a Lutheran Church school near Modjadji until standard 6. “I was very brilliant at school,” says Ramathoka.

Ramathoka wanted to go to Limana College in Louis Trichardt. But the famiIy did not have enough money.

So in 1936 Ramathoka started his first job. He worked in the bar of the Duiwelskloof hotel. They paid him 20 shillings a month.


Ramathoka wasn’t happy at the hotel. He wanted more money. So he went to town to find work. He arrived in Johannesburg on 1 st January 1939. He soon found a job in the house of Mr Wilfred Attlee. “He was the brother of the Prime Minister of England,” says Ramathoka. “That’s where I learnt my English.”

After a few years the Attlees moved to Boksburg and Ramathoka found another job in Parktown. His new employer was Mrs Alberts.

For five years Ramathoka cleaned her house and did her cooking. Wages weren’t so good in the kitchens of Johannesburg. But Ramathoka found many ways to make some extra shillings.

“I learned how to sew and put patches on peoples clothes,” says Ramathoka. “And I peeped into restaurants and saw how they did things. In that way I learned how to cook fancy food.”

Ramathoka also made ear-rings from buttons and sold them for half a crown each. At school Ramathoka was brilliant but In the city he was becoming wise.

In 1949 Mrs Alberts left town. Ramathoka went home to Modjadji for a short while. When he came back to Johannesburg he saw an advertisement in the newspaper. The advert said ‘Manservant Wanted’.

Ramathoka got the job with a wealthy family called the Benjamins.


The Benjamins lived in a big house in Melrose North. They had four small children and five servants.

Mrs Benjamin gave the workers many tasks. She also complained a lot. So the workers called her ishobolo.

But the house had big gardens with plenty of water. The Benjamins kept horses too. “Life was marvellous,” says Ramathoka. “I cooked morogo, pumpkin leaves, everything. I was growing tomatoes in the rose garden because there was so much manure there.

“One day the madam found them. She was cross and said, ‘what’s all these tomatoes doing growing in the roses?! And she pulled them up. Ah well!’

“I didn’t worry too much about things like that, “says Ramathoka. “Other people who . worked for ishobolo – they know its only for today. Tomorrow she won’t shobola. So nobody worried.”


At the Benjamins Ramathoka got even wiser about the ways of the city. He found new ways to make an extra few shillings. Ramathoka found out about fah fee – the gambling game of the poor people. He became a fah – fee runner. The domestic workers came from all over to bet with Ramathoka.

Ramathoka met the “chinaman” in the afternoon and in the eveninq. When somebody won, Ramathoka always got a small share of the money – a fah fee runner always gets a smaII share. Ramathoka couldn’t lose.

So Ramathoka had two jobs – one in the yard and one in the street. These jobs kept him very busy.

“It makes you work harder when you do the fah fee,” says Ramathoka. “Because your master and your madam must not see that you do that job. So you are always in a hurry for gambling. The person who plays fah fee works really hard. The people who do the running – they are very fast.”


Ramathoka was very busy but he found time to do even more work. When the ironing woman left her job, Ramathoka told Mr Benjamin he wanted her job. He said he would do the ironing at night. Mr Benjamin agreed – and Ramathoka got more money.

Ramathoka learned how to iron very well. And that’s not all he learned – he found out that another worker, Shabalala, was wearing Mr Benjamin’s shirts.

“Letty, Shabalala’s wife also worked there,” says Ramathoka. “When she didn’t wash Shabalala’s shirt, she took the master’s shirt. She gave it to Shabalala to wear when he’s off. Letty didn’t steal the shirts – she just borrowed them.”

“Many workers did this kind of thing,” says Ramathoka. “It was the same at the Inchcape hall where people went to dance. They borrow the madam’s dress for the dance. She just takes it when the madam is out. Then she brings it back. How will the madam know? She won’t know.”


Ramathoka was a busy man. But he was also a lonely man. So like so many domestic workers he forgot his loneliness by talking to his friends with a jug of beer in his hands.

“I never wanted to go to the bottle store,” says Ramathoka. “It tastes better to drink in the night with other people.

“That’s why they buy skokiaan in the shebeen. They don’t mind spending money. We like all the’ talking and joking and fighting. That’s how life goes. We get more money tomorrow. Why worry?”

In 1963 Mr Benjamin became ill and died. Ramathoka’s busy life at the Benjamins came to an end. He now needed a new job.


Ramathoka went to work for a very rich man. His name was Mr Norman Roburg. Roburg owned many shops. Ramathoka worked in one of his shops.

Ramathoka was not very happy in the rich man’s shop. The wages were low and Roburg didn’t give Ramathoka a place to stay. And all the hostels were full. For the first time Ramathoka had no place to grow tomatoes and morogo.

Ramathoka began to think of the mountain at Modjadji – where the mangoes and bananas grow wiId.

In 1982 he decided to stop work. Roburg didn’t give him a pension. “When I left they just said ‘goodbye’, says Ramathoka with a bitter laugh.

Ramathoka didn’t complain. He just went home to his wife and kids at Modjadji. Now Ramathoka spends his time growing beans and tomatoes in his own garden.

But life is still hard. Ramathoka must build new houses and thatch the roofs. He must plough the fields and build fences to keep the monkeys out of his garden.

Sometimes he hunts for wild pigs who live in the mountains near Modjadji. “It’s not easy to trap the pigs,” he says. “The pigs sleep in the day. When you build a trap the pigs dream about it. Then they know where the trap is.”

“So you really work hard at home,” says Ramathoka. “You got no boy. You have to do the job yourself. You have to work to get food.”

But at least in Modjadji the fruit doesn’t hide behind high walls. And there’s no ishobolo to dig up Ramathoka’s tomatoes.

(This story comes from a new book about the lives of domestic workers. The book is from Ravan Press and is called “e-Kiohini”. A woman called Sue Gordon wrote the book. The book will be in the shops at the end of the year. Watch out for it!).

(We did not use the real names of Ramathoka’s employees)


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