New Books | Domestic Workers in South Africa

Domestic workers occupy a precarious position, both intimate and removed from the families for whom they labour. Ena Jansen probes these shifting power relations and contradictions.

In this updated English version of the award-winning Soos Familie (2015), literature scholar Ena Jansen tracks representations of the domestic worker across a series of archives from 1658 to the present. She delves into the central place of domestic workers in South Africa, saying that they act as intermediaries in the contact zone between black and white, and rural and urban spaces.

This is an edited excerpt from Ena Jansen’s Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature (Wits University Press, 2019).

Shortly after their arrival at the Cape in 1652, Maria and Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch “founding father” of South Africa, employed a Khoi girl to take care of their children. Krotoa, who was about 10 years old at the time, would be “part of the family” for the 10-year period before the Van Riebeecks moved on to Batavia in 1662.

She learnt to speak Dutch fluently, and Van Riebeeck soon realised she could act as an interpreter during bartering expeditions and nego­tiations with the locals. A few men, such as her uncle Autshumao (Harry), were already active as interpreters between the Dutch and the Khoi, but Van Riebeeck apparently trusted Krotoa (Eva) more to further the interests of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company.

Of course, he could never have been sure of her loyalty, and so researchers have, quite rightly, considered the likelihood that Krotoa used her position and language proficiency to advance her own interests too. Not simply a pawn in Van Riebeeck’s strategy to gain the upper hand at the Cape, Krotoa had agency.

The fact that Krotoa was both the first black nanny to work for a white family at the Cape and an important go-between figure, made me realise that the millions of black women who have worked in white households through the centuries since then are in their own ways also intermediaries, pivotal figures in the interracial South African contact zone. Like Krotoa, they are “outsiders within”; people with an exceptional knowledge of both black and white cultures. My premise is that present-day domestic workers are an important sociological and economic “institution” that started at the time of Krotoa and slavery at the Cape, and continues to this day.

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The lasting importance of domestic workers in post-apartheid South Africa is poignantly demonstrated by a character called Eve Sisulu who, more than 300 years after Krotoa-Eva’s death, was to become the main character in an often hilariously funny and politically relevant cartoon strip.

The concept of Eve and her Madam was born when American Stephen Francis together with his South African-born wife visited his in-laws in Alberton in Gauteng. Francis was fascinated by the dynamics between his mother-in-law and her maid Grace. The “yelling and complaining of both parties” sparked an idea, and in the early 1990s he joined forces with two pioneers of satire in South Africa, historian Harry Dugmore and graphic artist Rico Schacherl. A few years later, the million-dollar title Madam & Eve was launched.

The Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) published the cartoon for the first time in 1992, in the interregnum between the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections. Currently, it is carried in a multitude of local and international newspapers. “Domestic servants are ubiquitous in South Africa,” says Dugmore on their website. “If you have money, you have a servant. It is the South African way.” To this day, Madam & Eve contains sharp comment not only on domestic situ­ations but also on political events. Sassy Eve has a Western name, but also an isiXhosa surname that links her to the widely respected anti-apartheid heroes, Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

Through the centuries, the relationship between employers and women like Krotoa-Eva and Eve Sisulu has been the main meeting point between white and black people. The lives of practically all South Africans have been touched by the institution of paid domestic work: either because of the presence of an often motherly carer and cleaner, or by the absence of a mother who does paid housework for others. Suburbs and houses were even built with the expectation that the average middle-class white family would have a live-in black maid and would therefore need servant’s quarters in the backyard.

I am particularly interested in how the often close, but also always distant, domestic arrangements are represented in the South African archive. The nature of this archive is, as in the case of many archives, particularly in colonial settings, a vexed one, as Carli Coetzee reminds us: it is dominated by a white perspective. This is, of course, in keeping with the fact that white South Africans have always enjoyed far better education, resulting also in white authors having easier access to publishers and a reading public than black writers could in the past hope to achieve.

The liberal social and economic historian CW de Kiewiet had already suggested in 1946 that the deepest truth about South Africa lies in the realisation that the continued demand for land by white people was the cause of the entanglement between black and white, which lead to exploitation and hostility. Parallel to this hunger for land ran the need for workers. “Precisely as this dependency grew, so whites tried to preserve their difference through ideology – racism.”

Black people became landless and extremely poor, which led to even greater mutual involvement and interdependence. Because of this, servants are often described as an “issue” or “problem”, while no one speaks about the “master and madam problem”. The migration of black women to cities and the work they did in the private spaces of white households led to a special kind of entanglement, and, in particular, to the racist assumption by even the youngest white child that black hands do the dirty work.

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The relationship between black domestic workers and white families over generations has inevitably led to patterns of decorum and behaviour, which convey much of the historically grown entanglement between black and white. Oral history interviews and research by sociologists such as Jacklyn Cock and Shireen Ally stress the fact that black people are often saddened, angered and disgusted by the restrictions and discrimination that result from racism and limited work opportunities.

A complicated image of entanglement is held in the collective South African memory, and during the past couple of years research has shown that white people often construct their memories of apart­heid around domestic workers, realising that the “learning” of white dominance hinged on their contact with black women in the home. Melissa Steyn was a trailblazer with her study Whiteness Just Isn’t What it Used to Be: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (2001), while in 2012 Tamara Shefer based her research on information she found in the Apartheid Archives Project, describing domestic workers as “a key site for the reproduction of White privilege”. Shefer noticed that family metaphors were widely used by people being interviewed, and that memory stories were often steeped in emotion, especially love and guilt: “The nanny is remembered nostalgically as a source of comfort and care.”

Many white South Africans in post-apartheid times have realised that they, in fact, first became aware of “difference” through experiences with these women, but that they very seldom acted on it. They noticed the discrimination against the women they often dearly loved, and became drawn into a system which made them understand that it was not so much gender or class but colour that determined power relations in South Africa. White children simply conformed to the place and role which society expected of them.

Although domestic workers in many ways do function like doors that enable contact between an inside and an outside and create the possibility of opening up to the “other”, they are seldom opened widely. The artist William Kentridge put it this way: “For a white suburban house, the journey through Africa began across the yard in the servant’s room.” An extended journey was pos­sible but hardly ever undertaken. So it is that Mark Gevisser refers to the “frontier of the backyard”.

It is my contention that domestic workers have played a signifi­cant role as intermediaries in South Africa, and that representations of these women both document and influence perceptions and behaviour with regards to race, power, subordination and service. The representation of these workers, whether in (auto)biographical or fictional form – even, and sometimes especially, when references are seemingly arbitrary – influence behaviour in profound and different ways, with important consequences for social inter­action among South Africans. Because cleaning women constantly move between starkly different worlds, as connectors between the city, townships and rural areas, between richer and poorer South Africans, they are at the crossroads of everything that has to do with difference in South Africa and are a pivotal point of contact between black and white people.

Every black woman who carries a white child on her back is a reminder of the ongoing pre­dicament of black women in South Africa.

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