The article's central preoccupation is with the dialectic of presence/absence in the tense and intense relations of intimacy and distance in domestic service. In its mix of cultural, economic and political history, literary analysis and autobiography, the article traces the representation of South African domestic workers in both the author's memory and the collective memory of Afrikaans literature. Whether it is possible to reconstruct 'the truth' about the past from private and public archives such as photograph albums and literature is discussed against the background of Michel Foucault's concept of the archive, while the 'sticky' concepts of representation and appropriation are confronted. During the 1950s, famous Afrikaans authors such as Alba Bouwer and Minnie Postma contributed to the often benevolent 'maternal' image of the black domestic worker in Afrikaans literature and the 'normalisation' of white South Africans' assumption that they have a 'right' to the service of black people. The article also refers to Elsa Joubert's mediation and framing of the voice of Poppie Nongena in 1978, which sparked a furious debate on the problematic question of white authors being the interpreters and mediators of subaltern black female lives - an issue which remains acute. How this is dealt with is discussed with reference to post-apartheid authors such as Jan van Tonder, who exposes the domestic violence he witnessed as a child during the 1960s when the family servant was forced to take her small son 'home', while Marlene van Niekerk scrupulously interrogates whiteness in post-apartheid spaces of middle-class comfort, where most maids are still black and most madams still white. © South African Sociological Association.