[OPINION] Stereotyping holds us back

One morning this week we were awoken at 2:34am by security guards who patrol our leafy suburb. Two men with very serious flashlights came ambling down the driveway while a man without a flashlight ran in their shadow, alongside them. I felt powerless realising, after we opened the gate, that maybe they weren’t security. It has happened.

To my enormous relief, they were the private security for whom we pay monthly and ADT, another fast-acting safety and security feature for which we have a debit order. The investigation they did along our boundary walls was thorough and I felt safe seeing that. Naturally my thoughts were with the safety of my four sleeping children and then immediately with all those in Cape Town who have to rely on an overworked police force and neighbourliness. It must be terrifying.

I sent a note to our neighbourhood Whatsapp group afterwards because I regularly get useful updates on this network. Often people are reminded to suspect their staff and the people who live in their homes. I have previously done a polygraph test on people who worked in our home after my son’s money was stolen. Out of four, one was implicated and duly dismissed. That it was the person I least suspected is the point I want to ponder.

Yes, times are tough and many may be tempted to steal. I have an ideal that if we treat our staff professionally, have contracts, pay for the work they do and not along the guide of the very minimal, minimal wage and meet them as service providers, we go a long way to establishing a work relationship. I know that chance takers will let you down, but we cannot assume culpability just because someone is a gardener or does domestic work. It is wrong.

There are many parents doing this work who put children through university, who raise our children lovingly and who tend our stuff as if it was their stuff. It is not a family relationship, it is a work relationship. We have to create clear means of communication; we need terms and conditions of employment and where we are not comfortable, we need to address that with the person. I see so many respectable people walking to and from the taxi rank. People working to make a living and a life.

If you are always going to be suspicious of the people you recruit to work at your home, then you should do the work yourself. We have to build a new foundation of trust, I am pretty sure these service providers are being judged on their level of work. There are crooks and criminals at all levels of work. It perpetuates a stereotype if we consistently raise flags about particular groups of people and lawlessness.

One of the messages on the Whatsapp group that morning suggesting an “empty house where a Malawian family lives and are suspects” be investigated. The actual owner of the house is only in the county one week a year and “doesn’t seem concerned about security”. Firstly, if there is a family living on the property who is not the owners, it is not empty. They are not there squatting illegally and they are people. Secondly, there are many families here who could be accused of not being concerned about security. Our neighbour has no boundary walls and a lovely hammock between two trees in his garden. When we moved here, that gave me a better sense of security than burglar-barred and electric-fenced households. It’s all a matter of perspective. We see what we choose to see.

We lived down the road for 18 years, with not one burglary. Maybe it was luck. Without being naive, to date we have had no reason to be suspicious of the people who work at our home. Our children, pets, home and belongings have been safe while we are here or when we are away, for many years.

It is important that we check our privileges again. I am aware of and grateful for many. More importantly, we need to change the dialogue in our thoughts about who people are and what they represent. My version of dodgy and your version of dodgy may not look the same. We have, have, have to stop putting people into boxes. All robbers steal, not all domestic workers and other service providers steal. Most of them are here, working for us and earning an honest living.

Crime is an easier way out often, for criminals. Let us get that perspective right so we can build a network of trust and respect in our neighbourhoods. We then create an opportunity for us to work together for a safer and equal neighbourhood. It is possible if we are willing to put the work in. If you have evidence, go to the police station, lay a charge and dismiss the person. A hunch is not good enough, but neither is doing nothing.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn