I was born to a mother of multiple identities. The daughter of a farmer who had no land but managed to grow her own food in the space she was allowed on the farm, where I was later born, Kwantaba Ziyatsha (place of burning mountains), or Seven Fountains to some.
It was only when my grandmother was forcefully removed from the farm where she worked, birthed some of her children and farmed that she could have her own piece of land and grow more food to feed the troop of us – her grandchildren and many more – in our village eMgababa. She was forcefully moved because she was getting old, wasn’t as “efficient” as Baas Robert needed her to be and all her children had left the farm to work in the mines or other farms or the “kitchens” in the towns.
By the time we moved to eMgababa, A village near Peddie in Eastern Cape, my mother, a promising bright student who I am told could have been one of the country’s best netball players, had long left school to go and work in the neighbouring town, Grahamstown, eRhini or Makhanda as it is now known. For a girl who didn’t finish school, domestic work became the most obvious avenue and soon enough, she was working in white people’s hotels and homes.
My mother started domestic work at age 14. She was a “live-in domestic”, which is code for a 24-hour worker available at the madam or master’s ring of the bell. Later we got to witness how she lived alongside her bosses.
The family which she served the longest loved her all right. She was the real mother of the household, the one the children cried to when they fell and were hungry.
In all the ways she was positioned as the stereotype: She walked the dogs in her pink overalls, sometimes fetched the children from school in her pink overalls. She had to wear her overalls when serving family friends by the pool.
She preferred blue but if she didn’t go with the madam to choose the colour she wanted she got pink. She stayed in the garage even though there were enough bedrooms inside the house she cleaned every day.
I did not want to know too much about what else happened there. I got to experience and observe some of it myself on the days I went to help her, or when I worked on my own for her master of 27 years during school holidays or weekends to make a little money, and when my mother was no longer well enough to work.
She was cheeky, and Baas tolerated her as long as Madam was alive.
Madam was a truly nice woman who loved my mother and helped save me from dying of a botched appendicectomy in the hands of an apartheid surgeon who insisted I had an STD at 14 and would not let anyone else disagree with his diagnosis.
When Madam died the husband persecuted her out of a job of 27 years and robbed her of her entitlements.
In my family, we used to joke that my mother was like Mandela: she did a 27-year sentence at her last employer. The difference was she got out of it with little if anything while Mandela got a presidency and a saintly status. She didn’t think the joke was funny, but it was too good a joke not to taunt her with.
After all, she was the Queen of Mock. She was so good at mocking others she could reduce a big man to a flimsy little straw with one joke. She wasn’t afraid of anyone. I think this was part of the reason the very tall Baas couldn’t tolerate her in the end, cheeky domestics aren’t attractive, nor pleasure to have around.
My mother’s experience, and by extension ours, was as complex and unique as it was typical. When I started to work for the Baas he was very quick to comment how I reminded him of my mother when she was young.
How she followed instructions. How she would moan but wouldn’t talk as loudly back. How she cleaned “more thoroughly”, didn’t demand extra pay and was just how they all should be – visible only through the work of their hands. But she changed, and he didn’t know what got into her.
After my mother recognised certain signs in me she demanded I stop going there. Fortunately, I got another weekend and holiday job somewhere else where it was just the Madam and my mother was always with me.
She was always clear that no daughter of hers was going to become a fulltime domestic worker.
She insisted she would sell anything of hers for me to complete my studies, but I knew she had already sold everything, including her health.
So, when she got sick I was happy for her to stop working. By then, she had met a wonderful spirit who became many things to us.
This one, we didn’t call Madam. She was daughter and sister and companion to my mother. She shared everything she could with us.
One cannot pretend race, class and history away, but she presented an alternative way.
When she moved away my mother could not do the work anymore. She was 14 years old when she began this work. It had marked her life, our perceptions of interpersonal relationships and familial intimacies. She was done.
October is the month my mother died six years ago. She was 54, a feisty, towering tree of our family. With her around we had a stem on which to anchor ourselves. It is a very heavy month for us her children and her siblings.
This month, the sixth year after her death, our family is performing the big ritual returning her spirit back home, Siyambuyisa.
My mother was also a serious healer. In my tradition people get called to be healers. I do not know how our ancestors decide who to call, perhaps a combination of one’s life trials and tribulations and a resilience or purity of spirit despite it all might have something to do with it.
So, by tradition we must perform all these rituals, for the healing of her spirit as well as of those of us who still live.
Back then, the story of the “domestic worker” in South Africa was more black and white than it is today. Black women in the towns cleaned white people’s houses, looked after their children, maintained their households, releasing the family to go to school and engage in “productive” economic activities.
Black women have always been central to the formation of the white economy and continue to be in contemporary South Africa’s black middle-class economy. It is still black women (South African born and migrant) who are the majority domestic workers today, working in the white suburbs and in the homes of today’s burgeoning black middle classes.
A few months ago, I got introduced to Pinky, a domestic worker warrior who is leading the charge for domestic workers to receive the same protections under the law. She fights alongside Myrtle Witbooi, the stalwart of the domestic workers’ movement in South Africa and the world over. Myrtle has been everywhere carrying the placard for domestic workers rights.
She has led Sadsawu, the neglected child of our labour movement for decades, making visible the invisible hands who clean up the proverbial mess in so many of our homes and perform productive labour without which our nation, our economy, would come to a standstill.
This month Pinky and her sisters – my mother’s comrades and sisters in arms – will hopefully achieve a significant victory at the Constitutional Court.
I had not known Pinky much before this. I still do not quite know much of her story. But I know my mother’s story and through it I know Pinky.
The story of millions of women in South Africa and the world over who are domestic workers.
I am blessed with these mothers, these comrades, these warriors who are returning my mother to me, and justice for her beyond the grave.
I am inspired by the feminists I organise with who did not hesitate to respond when these workers called.
For all these reasons, I support every single demand the domestic workers are making: Same protection under the law, decent wage, decent working conditions, compensation for injuries and diseases contracted at work.
And no, domestic workers are not responsible for the crimes that happen in our homes. Yes, when we feel vindicated at an occasional video that goes viral of a supposed domestic worker abusing a child we should be shocked as well.
What do we do every day, in the most intimate spaces where we have total control over them, to recognise and affirm their humanity.
No, its not enough to talk nice about how wonderful Mavis, Violet and Zoliswa are, and then send them away with a couple of thousand rand when they are too old or sickly for us to extract anymore of their labour.
We must recognise, respect and remunerate them as legitimate workers. Treat them as human beings with dignity.
We have the power of control over their lives while they are in our homes, our offices and workplaces.
Our own humanity is measured in the way we treat others in general, particularly those who give to us as much as domestic workers do. Hopefully the courts will speak for them.
Hopefully the State will finally be forced to recognise their rights as workers. We owe them nothing less!
That’s why I support the Domestic Worker’s Rising campaign. You should too.
The campaign was launched on October 15. On the same day a group of domestic workers and allied organisations gathered outside the North Gauteng High Court for the Sylvia Mahlangu hearing.
In this case, Maria Mahlangu drowned in March 2012 after falling off a ladder and plunging into her employer’s open swimming pool while cleaning windows.
Her unemployed daughter Sylvia and grandchild, who were dependent on her income, were unable to claim for compensation through available legislation, even though Mahlangu had worked for the same family for 22 years.
To get more details about this case and the Domestic Worker’s Rising Campaign follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on @OxfamSA and visit the website to see the different ways you can be involved.
• Siphokazi Mthathi is the executive director at Oxfam South Africa
Find more information on the following links:
https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/citypress/20181014/282291026197237 (City Press Op-Ed on the case)