The care you are entitled to

Why do the middle classes in South Africa - regardless of race or ideology- pay their domestic workers such low wages?

Image: Paulien Osse.

A few months the Hewitts, a white South African family in the country’s capital Pretoria, moved to a black township to live there for a month and blogged about it. Since then, I’ve been left to wonder – media hype aside – whether anybody economically benefited from this spectacle of empathy? Has it, for example, made any difference for those township residents who commute to middle class suburbs and city centers every day to work in the homes of people like the Hewitt’s? I doubt it.

While some of South Africa’s contemporary (but apartheid-bred) social ills can be ascribed to a lack of political will and resources, the widespread underpayment of domestic workers is not one of them. (In fact, South Africa was one of the first to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention, which went into force earlier this month.)

Instead, it’s an issue of public will and a collective refusal to pay a decent wage that renders the lives of so many hardworking girls and women (many of whom are mothers and care takers) into such an economical challenge. Amongst the wealthy, the middle class, the international students as well as many international professionals and development workers, of whom many (though not everyone) can easily afford to pay more, the refusal to pay their cleaning ladies a decent wage is unrelenting.

Why? Perhaps South Africa’s horrible mathematics scores have something to do with it. Because surely anyone who nails the grade 3 basics of pluses and minus can calculate that R150 (about US$15 or €11) per day minus R20 transportation equals R130 (US$13 or €9,5) about a day for a liberally assumed average of, say, 20 workdays a month does not equal a decent wage. Pretty straightforward math.

Of course, SA is more than its Gini coefficient; not everyone is in the position to be generous. So in the face of an estimated unemployment rate of 25,5%, R150 is better than nothing. But for many who are, the ability to pay more seems utterly irrelevant. Standard rationales: “A cleaning lady only costs 150 rand!”; “Does the lease includes a domestic?”; or “Our maid is looking for more hours and I’m trying to help her find them.”

Why deviate from the convenience of the norm if it’s normalized by everyone around you and if the minimum wage law tells you it’s acceptable? For those outside South Africa, this norm consists of R150 for a full day of work, which usually includes travel expenses and an occasional gift or bonus, depending on the mood du jour.

That’s South Africa right there; where you can be on the board of I don’t know how many township development projects, cheer the symbolism of bridge building, theoretically back the concept of affirmative action and lament the ANC’s lack of political will to take care of its poorest citizens, while finding it totally appropriate to leave 150 rand and a tin of Ricoffi on the kitchen table in exchange for the care and labor that your most personal belongings require.

Further Reading

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.

Defying defeat

Political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s collection of writings are a powerful and evocative reminder that democracy in Egypt remains a bleak prospect.