The Help is still the underclass

‘Servant situation’: Migrants in a bus outside the home affairs department in Pretoria. Many people from other countries find work in post-apartheid South Africa as domestic workers. (Madelene Cronjé)

‘Servant situation’: Migrants in a bus outside the home affairs department in Pretoria. Many people from other countries find work in post-apartheid South Africa as domestic workers. (Madelene Cronjé)


Ever since 1994, South Africa has experienced growing waves of transnational migration, and women from neighbouring countries wishing to support their families have sought domestic work in Johannesburg.

As academic Shireen Ally points out, in post-apartheid South Africa domestic workers have benefited from an array of legal mechanisms, including a national minimum wage, mandatory contracts of employment, and the extension of unemployment insurance.

Ally’s own research and that of others has shown, however, that these measures have failed to transform the institution of domestic work.

Importantly, says Ally, “it has also been established that paid domestic work for black South African women remains enduringly migrant, in an intranational and social rather than transnational and political sense, as workers continue to straddle the divides between urban and rural contexts”.

Widespread illegality makes it difficult to gauge the number of workers from other countries whohave left to find domestic work in “the land of milk and honey” — a description used by many such workers.

It is felt, however, that figures have significantly increased, with many women fleeing deteriorating economic conditions, while others are attracted by the prospect of sophisticated city life in Johannesburg.

The 2011 census showed a population increase in South Africa (since 1996) from 40.5-million to 51.8-million. Growing numbers, from the Eastern Cape to Limpopo in the north, were migrating to the cities in an effort to escape poverty.

Seventeen years after the ANC was voted into power, 23.2% of black women and 16.7% of coloured women were illiterate, and because 41.2% of all black women were unemployed, it is not surprising that, for most, domestic work was the only option.

A 2014 survey indicated that, of all South African groups, black youth were least likely to increase their education and skills. As a result, many are fated to wait on tables, though there is a perception that many restaurants prefer to employ Zimbabweans.

With a growing black middle class, urban black families increasingly enjoy the services of domestic workers and gardeners.
Small wonder, then, that Zukiswa Wanner’s humorous Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013) has a section on “African Madams”.

The predicament of a black woman who becomes the employer of a domestic worker in South Africa is explored in Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017). The daughter of ANC activists, Msimang grew up in exile in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, and went to university in the United States. After returning to South Africa in 1990, Msimang marries an Australian, and thereafter they live in Emmarentia, Johannesburg.

While in exile, she tells the reader, her family employed “maids”, and Msimang and her two younger sisters “were little madams”.

Instructed to “respect the aunties who worked in our houses”, Msimang now finds herself “my own madam” in the fraught context of her home country.

“I was no longer an innocent. The house makes me complicit. Suddenly I hold shares in South Africa Inc, and my participation in a firm whose business I loathe makes me anxious. It takes me a long time to figure out that this is the core of all the troubles we experience in the house on Congo Road: it places us firmly in the heart of whiteness.”

She resolves to be “multiracial and fair and kind” because she feels that, as a black employer, she is “on the right side of history”.

But it is “another story for the people who rely on our largesse to survive: the women who live in our house and care for our children and feed us”.

Msimang encounters the complexities of the class divide: “They have trouble treating us as their equals because they know we are the haves and they are the have-nots. … It is fitting, then, that the house on Congo Road and the women who live in it — The Help — bring on the existential crisis that forces me to confront my place in South Africa.”

Like most things in South Africa, the “servant situation” is undergoing change and is no longer a black and white matter. Nevertheless, the historical inequality between maids and madams remains, casting a shadow over this precarious working relationship.

As long as it is not a simple business arrangement, there will be a lingering unease.

This is an edited extract from Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature by Ena Jansen (Wits University Press)

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