March 14th, 2010

Desperately seeking Susan: My journey to find the South African nanny who was a second mother to me

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Many of Mark Rossiter’s most vivid memories of his childhood in 1980s South Africa revolve around food, and the love that went into preparing it.

He particularly remembers pestering his ’second mother’, his beloved nanny, Susan, for her signature dish meilepop, the traditional maize porridge.

‘She made it with meat and gravy, and I just loved it. I’d badger her to make it for me and she always did,’ he remembers fondly.

It’s only now that Mark, a film-maker who lives in Britain, realises there was something unusual about the way Susan served up his meilepop. His came on a china plate; hers – if she had any at all – was dished onto a battered tin one.

‘It never struck me as odd, and perhaps it should have done. I don’t think I once asked, “Why does Susan have a different plate?”‘

There were other questions he now regrets not asking, too: why did Susan sit on the floor rather than on the sofa; why didn’t she splash in the swimming pool with him, and – the biggie – what was her surname? ‘That kind of sums up the relationship I had with Susan,’ he explains.

‘This woman was at the centre of my world for ten years. She cared for me, brought me up, loved me, was a second mother to me, and yet I didn’t even know her surname.’ This was the reality of white children from rich families growing up in apartheid South Africa, largely raised by poor black women.

Although she lived in one of Johannesburg’s most notorious townships , she arrived at the Rossiters’ elegant residence, in an exclusive white area, every morning at 7am, to look after Mark and his brother. She would cook, clean, change and bathe the children, soothe cut knees and dispense cuddles as necessary.

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