We have a meal occasionally at a place that often seems to have too many waiters and waitresses. You get served very fast, staff members almost bumping each other out of the way to get to your table. This situation is good for patrons, but it results in some unhappiness among the staff. “It’s hard to get more than two or three tips in a day here,” one confided. “There are so many of us. The boss is too soft-hearted. He just keeps hiring.”

So it must have been a relief when Christmas came round and most of the staff went home to families in Limpopo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and elsewhere. Replacements were found for some of those who were away, but not all. Patrons were served, but not as fast as in normal times. It was a relief.

Then, among the replacements came a young woman who was extraordinarily enthusiastic. In fact, she was too quick for someone wanting a leisurely meal. Your plate was scarcely emptied when it was whipped away and replaced with the next course. If you were not careful you might even lose the last piece of potato, forkful of beans or the gravy you were planning to mop up with a slice of bread. Conversation became almost impossible. You found yourself eating hard to try to keep up.

“What’s your name?” Miriam asked her.

“Zanele,” she said.

It is a well-known name in South Africa. In fact, the wife of our second president in the democratic era has that name. “All right, Zanele, now we want you to slow down,” Miriam told her. “We don’t come here to be rushed. Take it easy.”

“Sorry, Ma’am,” she said, “I learnt it at home.”   “Do the members of your family treat you as a waitress?” Miriam was aghast. “Do they expect you to serve them hand and foot the way you serve customers here?”

“No. It’s because of my father’s pocket money system.”

Zanele described her father’s pocket money system to us. Money got dished out to the kids depending on how industrious they were. There was so much for washing the dishes, so much for sweeping out the house, so much for weeding the garden and so on.

“So it looks like his system works,” Miriam said.

“Too much,” Zanele said. “Me and my sisters are always fighting to get the work before the others take it.”

“How many sisters do you have?”

“Five,” she said.

“That’s a lot of girls, six altogether.”

“Yes, I know. I’m the last. My dad gave me my name.”

Miriam had to ask. If she had not, I would have. “So what does Zanele mean?”

“It means – too many girls.”

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The Replacement Waitress