Invisible labor in plain sight

South Africa has 52 million people. Around 1.1 million are domestic workers. 54,000 of those are under the age of fifteen.

From Zanele Muholi's "Massa and Minah 2," 2008

For South Africa watchers, two sets of statistics from a new comparative study of domestic workers in India and South Africa, A New Form of Bonded Labor makes for sobering reading. The first is that around 1.1 million South Africans are domestic workers. With a total population exceeding 52 million people, that’s a lot. The second is that 54,000 of those workers are under the age of fifteen.* Basically child labor. What’s worse, given the statistical invisibility of this kind of work, the actual number is probably even higher.

According to the International Labor Organization, over 75% of domestic workers are women, who work for private house holds. 91% of them are African and 9% is Coloured. So basically they are black. Many of them make work weeks topping 80 hours up to the age of 75 (though women’s life expectancy is only 48 years). The majority of women work in one home, and live there, or divide their workweeks between a few different homes. It also turns out that South Africa has the highest number of domestic workers in the Southern African region.

Historically, domestic workers were the near exclusive privilege of white South Africans. Few relationships carried the legal, state sanctioned apartheid abuses of the public space into the personal homes of white South Africans as the ‘Madam-Maid’ contract did. The domestic worker, (as well as the gardener) embodied the exploitation that the apartheid state was built on in many white homes. And just like the white supremacist economy could only survive and thrive through exploitation, abuse, repression and the disruption and destruction of black neighborhoods, households and families, the domestic worker –isolated from her own family — operated as the backbone to the white family’s household economy.

Many employers chose to frame their domestic worker’s constant presence and unwavering dedication to their children, belongings and wellbeing as a matter of belonging, intimacy and connection, and expressed this with “she’s part of our family” kind of statements. This type of family title, drenched with affection served different functions. It took the exploitation out of the equation, erased the worker’s own family, made their contract seem organic and – simultaneously — soothed suspicious anxieties. On the latter, often, domestic workers were viewed as inherently unreliable, theft-prone and untrustworthy.

The interviews and observations in A New Form of Bonded Labour, suggest that, for many (live-in) domestic workers, not much has changed twenty-one years into democracy. One employer, a married doctor and mother of four from an elite suburb in Durban, described her bond with her domestic worker — who receives 2000 Rands (around $170 right now) a month for 84 hour workweeks — as follows:

She is part of our family. We take care of her, her mother worked for us. She gets all the old clothes, she eats all the leftovers and she has a bed and her own room. When we bought new TV we put the old one in her room. She will do anything for this family. We can wake her up at midnight and ask her to prepare a meal and she does it with a smile on her face.

So basically, she views her worker’s position as a matter of destiny and belonging. Like her mother, she serves them with a smile (so upward generational mobility isn’t necessary either) and is rewarded with a fabricated form of kinship (rather than actual benefits).

Her employee has a different take on their connection.

When my mum retired they gave her R 10,000 which was in 2006 she worked for doctor’s mother for thirty-two years. Is that how you treat your family? They pay me R 2000 a month. What can you buy for R 2000 a month? I work like a slave. I am telling you, seven days a week. When I want time off they make me feel bad. Sometime they give me an extra R 100. I see doctor; she spends more than R2000 on a pair of shoes. I am not their family I work here if I had some — where else to work for more money I would go. True they feed me. I am not hungry here. I got a nice place to stay, but I am always tired.

If their experiences are typical for ‘Madam-Maid’ relationships in post-apartheid South Africa, then it seems like not much has changed, which we already sort of suspected. To this day, domestic workers are recommended with reliability credit, as if her trustworthiness makes her an exception, and family titles continue to trump actual benefits or opportunities for social mobility. They’re still Black.

In 2000, whites are said to have made up 55% of employers versus 30% of Africans and 15% Coloureds and Indians (though the authors note that the real number of white employers is probably higher.) Do black employers treat their domestic workers differently? We don’t know.  But the (overall) picture that the study paints (of both countries) is a bleak one indeed:

These women are taught to be invisible in the homes of their employers and to refrain from engaging in spontaneous conversation with their employers and guests of their employers. They are seen as workers in the household; employers neglect to realize that they are people with feelings and emotions; the way in which they are treated deeply affects and isolates them.

In 2008, visual activist Zanele Muholi (whose mother worked as a domestic worker for the same family for 42 years) wrote thatThere continues to be little recognition and little protection from the state for the hard labour these women perform to feed and clothe and house their families.” That’s one of the reasons why, in 2008, she used her ‘Massa” & Mina(h)’ project toacknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labour with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their place of work.” 

Since then, the South African state has made some legislative efforts (to protect domestic workers.) They, for example, ratified the International Domestic Workers Convention in 2013 and came up with the ‘Sectoral Determination for the Domestic Worker Sector’ law. But with a minimum wage of R8,34 (around $0,72) per hour, the findings of ‘A New Form of Bonded Labour’ shouldn’t surprise us.

  • Mary Sibande is another South African artist who used her art to celebrate her mother, grandmother and great grandmothers (all domestic workers). Check it out here.  The child labor estimates are from a 2007 ILO study, when the total population was just below 48 million.

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