IZWI : the working conditions of African domestic workers in Cape Town in the 1980s

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The focus of this thesis on African women's experiences as domestic workers results from the fact that the majority of women within the African population in Cape Town are employed in this sector of economy. Further, the African working class is in a peculiar position as a result of the strict enforcement of the Coloured Labour Preference Policy. This policy ensured the almost total exclusion of the African population from decent housing and education as well as employment. In fact, the policy has hamstrung almost every aspect of the African population's life. The Coloured Labour Preferential Policy was coupled with the strict enforcement of influx control, governed by the Urban Areas Act No. 25 of 1945 as amended. Worst hit by this law were the African women. An attempt was made to understand the experiences of African women both in and outside their work situation. The examination of their gendered experiences of 'race' and class divisions has led to the identification of a number of issues, among them poverty, exploitation as rightless workers and payment of low wages, fragmentation of family life and subordination in marriage relations, childcare problems, housing problems and isolation as mothers and workers. Further, their dreams, which include a wish for securing property, a secure family life and educating their children, as well as self-employment, are all indications of their deprivation and exploitation as women. In this thesis gender has been prioritised, as it emerged as the prime feature of African women's experiences of social divisions. Being a woman in a society divided by 'race' and class, has created hierarchies which carry unequal relationships between employer and employee and the payment of low wages. The privatised nature of this unequal relationship is the key to the oppression and exploitation of domestic workers. Moreover, the impact of the double day on African Women domestic workers has resulted in particular experiences of exploitation and oppression. Because of the limited material currently available on domestic workers, this study is seen as a contribution to the study of women as well as a contribution to a gender-sensitive, working class history of Cape Town. The selected literature that has been reviewed has left the gendered experiences of African women unexposed within their households. The focus has been on the work situation only. Failure to recognise or identify these gendered experiences within both class and 'race' divisions results in obscuring the daily struggles that African women face regarding housing, family life and childcare facilities. The review of the two commissions of enquiry, namely the Riekert and Wiehahn Commissions has shown that the State is still unresponsive to the needs of women as workers and in particular, as domestic workers. Riekert has tied the availability of housing to employment, thus excluding a large number of women in the Cape Town urban area.

Bibliography: pages 269-280.