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From Servants to Workers

From Servants to Workers: South African Domestic Workers and the Democratic State

Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    From Servants to Workers
    Book Description:

    In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of women from poorer countries have braved treacherous journeys to richer countries to work as poorly paid domestic workers. Scholars and activists denounce compromised forms of citizenship that expose these women to at times shocking exploitation and abuse.

    In From Servants to Workers, Shireen Ally asks whether the low wages and poor working conditions so characteristic of migrant domestic work can truly be resolved by means of the extension of citizenship rights. Following South Africa's "miraculous" transition to democracy, more than a million poor black women who had endured a despotic organization of paid domestic work under apartheid became the beneficiaries of one of the world's most impressive and extensive efforts to formalize and modernize paid domestic work through state regulation. Instead of undergoing a dramatic transformation, servitude relations stubbornly resisted change. Ally locates an explanation for this in the tension between the forms of power deployed by the state in its efforts to protect workers, on the one hand, and the forms of power workers recover through the intimate nature of their work, on the other.

    Listening attentively to workers' own narrations of their entry into democratic citizenship-rights, Ally explores the political implications of paid domestic work as an intimate form of labor. From Servants to Workers integrates sociological insights with the often-heartbreaking life histories of female domestic workers in South Africa and provides rich detail of the streets, homes, and churches of Johannesburg where these women work, live, and socialize.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5827-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction. Maid with Rights?
    (pp. 1-20)

    One crisp and bright winter morning in South Africa’s economic hub, Johannesburg, I met Hazel Sondlo¹—a woman whose life story typifies the problem that is at the core of this book. That morning, on an ordinary street in the working-class suburb of Bez Valley, I walked past the driveway of the modest home that stood at the address I was given. That was when I first saw her. A buxom but forlorn figure, she was sweeping a section of paved driveway behind the curvy designs of a heavy black iron gate. This was Hazel, but it was not her...

  5. Part I Apartheid Servitude

    • 1 The Apartheid State and Modern Servitude
      (pp. 23-42)

      In 1905, just as the then colonial government of South Africa entered the twentieth century, an official commission on “native affairs” made the following extraordinary recommendation: “One branch of the Native labour question is the employment of women, and the Commission feels that it is highly desirable that every mea sure should be adopted which would encourage the employment of native women in domestic work.”¹

      It’s a remarkable fossil of South Africa’s complex history of servitude, and the role of the state in it. Suggesting complicity of the state in legislatively intervening in the sector, it overturns popular understandings of...

    • 2 Beyond the Backyard: The Shift to Live-Out and Part-Time Work
      (pp. 43-64)

      In 1963, at the height of apartheid, Sophia Ncobo, a nineteen-year-old mother of two, found herself in Johannesburg. She had just accepted work as a live-in domestic for a white working-class family in an inner-city suburb. Sophia had grown up in a small rural village in an area that had just been declared a “Bantustan. Having no longer attended school from the age of twelve, she got married when she was seventeen and had children right away. Just after the birth of her second child, however, her husband—who had been working on the gold mines in Johannesburg since they...

  6. Part II Turning “Servants” into Workers

    • 3 Protecting “Vulnerable” Workers? Workers Embrace and Reject State Power
      (pp. 67-93)

      In 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and a “new” South Africa was imminent, a focus group was held with domestic workers as part of an effort to record women’s hopes for democracy. When asked, “How would you want your lives to be changed,” the assembled domestic workers connected political emancipation directly with the overturning of their position as paid care workers. “We would certainly like our lives to change,” they said. “Like those women that we work for. When they come home, they are with no worry. We stay here in their houses and our...

    • 4 Intimate Work: State Power versus Workers’ Power
      (pp. 94-118)

      “I will not sign that contract!” said Patricia Kubu with determination. “But, if you have a contract, won’t your working conditions be regulated?” I intervene. “No, no, no. I don’t want to sign that contract,” she said, shaking her head with absolute resolve. She was not the only one. On a Department of Labor “inspection blitz,” a sincere employer told the inspector exasperatedly that her worker of many years refused to be registered. Later, I met Linda Mkhonto, who recollected how she “negotiated” Saturdays off when the new legislation came into effect:

      First, when the legislation came out, we didn’t...

    • 5 Paid to Care: The Dual-Care Regime
      (pp. 119-144)

      Paid domestic work engenders a cruel irony. While domestic workers are paid to care for the children of others, in doing so, they are constrained in their ability to care for their own. Mabel Mabena, a thirty-nine-year-old live-in domestic worker in Killarney, a middle-class suburb of Johannesburg, does all the cooking and cleaning in her employers’ home and takes care of their two children. She started working for the family in 1992, when she was twenty-six years old, having left rural Phokeng in the North West province after her second child was born. “I needed to find work because life...

  7. Part III Workers’ Struggles

    • 6 Demobilizing Domestic Workers
      (pp. 147-163)

      In 1996, an ironic paradox marked domestic workers’ entry into a democratic order. They were extended the right, for the first time in their history, to organize into trade unions. But, in that same year, the national union they had built through the repressive years of apartheid, collapsed. Beginning in the nineteenth century, domestic workers in South Africa publicly organized as an expression of a class politics into gangs, associations, and unions. By the 1980s, their mobilization as workers had grown to such strength that they could no longer be characterized as unorganizable. When the landmark legislation to extend rights...

    • 7 “Like the Heart in the Body”: Manyanos and Mother-Workers
      (pp. 164-183)

      On a warm Sunday afternoon, I asked Sophia Ncobo—a domestic worker of more than forty years—what was the most important part of her life. She replied without hesitation, “my children. I am still the mother to my children. They are the most important to me, to have a good life.”

      Sophia’s three children were raised by her mother in a township outside Port Elizabeth while Sophia worked as a live-in domestic worker raising the two children of her employer in Troyeville, a suburb of Johannesburg. This disconnect between the immediate mothering for pay in her working life and...

  8. Conclusion. Formalization of Paid Domestic Work versus Socialization of Reproduction?
    (pp. 184-194)

    In 1994, the New York Times reported on its front page that democracy had meant little to nothing for South Africa’s domestic workers. “In the months since South Africa’s humblest workers went to the polls for the first time,” reported the Times, “many defying their employers to vote for Nelson Mandela, life has changed little for the people who form the human scaffolding of South Africa’s white elite” (October 10, 1994).

    As the largest single sector of women’s employment in the country, the over one million domestic workers in South Africa were widely regarded as among the most oppressed, exploited,...

  9. Appendix: Some Notes on Method
    (pp. 195-200)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 201-208)
  11. References
    (pp. 209-220)
  12. Index
    (pp. 221-228)