My Madam’s name was Mrs. Plum. She loved dogs and Africans and said that everyone must follow the law even if it hurt. These were three big things in Madam’s life.
The “three big things” listed by Karabo, the young African woman who narrates Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story “Mrs. Plum,” have a distinct order to them. Mrs. Plum treats her dogs better than her black African servants. The dogs, Monty and Malan, sleep on pink linen sheets in Mrs. Plum’s bedroom and are pampered with brushings and meals. Mrs. Plum tries to be a mindful, politically progressive employer of Africans, and, as we will discover in this tale, she has more respect for her African help than she does for the law.
The magic of a short story is that the author can show us, through a portrait of ordinary days and lives, the values and conflicts that fracture lives and even whole cultures. In this seemingly simple tale of employers, servants, and dogs, we can see, in close-up, the world of Apartheid and its stratifications that even now divide South African society. As readers, we can notice that the seemingly nonchalant opening of a short story can, in the order of a list, speak volumes about character and what lies ahead.
“They make me fed up when I see them in their baskets, looking fat, and as if they knew all that was going on everywhere,” says the young servant Karabo of the dogs. The exalted position of the dogs over the servants poignantly illustrates the everyday inequalities integral to domestic life during Apartheid. Perhaps for this reason, much of “Mrs. Plum” centers around dogs. Monty and Malan, spoiled as they are, are not the only specimens of their type in Greenside:
In winter so many families went away that the dogs remained the masters and the madams. You could see them walk like white people in the streets. Silent but with plenty of power. And when you saw them you knew that they were full of more nonsense and fancies in the house.
Regardless of Mrs. Plum’s good intentions on the subject of race relations, she distrusts the gardener whose job it is to care for her dogs. This gardener’s name is Dick, and his fear of white people makes his manner uncertain. His relationship with the dogs and with the dogs’ owner is strained.
Although he had a long heart, Madam was still not sure of him. She often went to the dogs after a meal or after a cleaning and said to them, did Dick give you food sweethearts? Or did Dick wash you sweethearts? Let me see. And I could see that Dick was blowing up like a balloon with anger. These things called white people! he said to me. Talking to dogs!
Karabo, Dick, and other black servants find themselves keeping secrets from their white employers. Dick must keep his resentment of the dogs in check, Karabo attends lectures and lessons at the near-revolutionary Black Crow Club without revealing their true subject matter to Mrs. Plum, and Karabo’s friend Chimane gets an abortion in secret to keep her job and preserve her reputation.
Mrs. Plum, however, does have good intentions. She makes Karabo eat at the table with her and her daughter Kate, holds dinner parties with black guests, and belongs to a group of women who protest interracial violence in front of government buildings. Even Dick is occasionally a beneficiary of her half-hearted crusade for Africans’ rights: when the police, searching for loafers, begin berating him in the back yard, Mrs. Plum soaks them with the garden hose, landing herself fourteen days in jail. She refuses to pay the bail, despite the small sum, and stays out her time to prove her point and stay true to her political ideals, proving at the same time that her own injunction to “follow the law even if it hurt” is less important to her than her “love” of Africans.
It is to Mphahlele’s credit that he could write such a believable account of a respectable housewife turning a hose on the police. In this portrait of a strictly hierarchical society, the characters are sympathetic and believable, and the most outrageous of social norms are deftly illustrated in incidents and details. In Apartheid South Africa, the almost comic image of Mrs. Plum soaking a couple of sputtering policemen represents something far more nefarious and far-reaching than a backyard dispute over a servant’s rights.
You’ll find the story “Mrs. Plum” in our collection, South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht.