A woman of substance has passed away. You will not know her and countless others like her as their lives and sacrifices often go unsung irrespective of the significant role that they play in our daily lives. Doris Oliphant, magog, a grandmother that I was gifted through the work that she lovingly performed in our household as I was growing up, is no longer with us. She passed away in Mashashane, Limpopo, at the ripe age of 95. I’ve known her all my life.
Even though our country’s previous political system presented us with such twisted messages about being black and white, worker and employer, I always knew that I loved magog and that she loved me. She was so giving, of her wisdom, Godly advice, support, laughter and affection. We’ve been in regular contact which made it possible for me to help support her in her retirement, as she did for me when I was small, it was a blessing knowing her.
My thoughts are taken to the role of domestic workers in building relationships between the so-called races and different generations. At the time when I grew up, contact between white and black South Africans was very limited. Whilst growing up, to me, Mrs. Oliphant represented black South Africa. She was wise, gracious, calm and informed. My whole family loved her and we shared a very strong bond and mutual respect. In order to perform her work, she was separated from her own children, as is the case of many migrant domestic workers.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that one in five domestic workers are international migrants. In the case of forced migration in South Africa, many women were separated and continue to be separated from their families due to poverty, related to, amongst others, geographical location. Separation from families mean that workers’ own children do not share in their daily gifts, as I was very privileged to have experience with magog. The lives of women, like Mrs. Oliphant, are dedicated to caring and loving which enables a stable economy, yet their important work is often overlooked, except from those that know them personally.
The sacrifices that she made in her lifetime has brought into sharp focus the labour of domestic workers and homemakers. The labour of love that keeps households and children clean, fed and organised. In the book Like Family, Ena Jansen outlines the history and positioning of domestic workers in South Africa. Whilst domestic labour can be precarious and fraught with difficulty and sacrifice, the strong bonds that are formed between worker and family serve as important social anchors in bridging relational divides. Their labour ensures that the 15 532 000 other economically active South Africans, specifically those from the mostly middle to upper class citizens, are able to participate in paid employment, without being encumbered by what is termed as ‘dirty work’ by sociologist Everett Hughes.
Dirty work often involves the work that nobody else wants to do at a very low wage. Based on the National Minimum Wage Act 2018, domestic workers should earn a minimum of R15 per hour, the lowest hourly minimum wage paid to South Africans when compared to R18 p/h for farm workers and R20 p/h for workers overall. By including domestic workers as an employment category in labour legislation, their work has evolved from servants to workers, as detailed in the book with the same title by Prof Shireen Ally.
South Africa has 1 029 000 domestic workers of which 997 000 are women, according to the 2018 Quarterly Labour Force Survey. Thirteen percent of all women that are economically active in South Africa, are domestic workers. There are also 2 540 000 homemakers, who are classified as not economically active. Therefore 3 590 000 people, primarily women, are supporting the 15 532 000 other South Africans that are economically active, with domestic chores, homemaking and child rearing.
In most cases these domestic caregivers do so with love and dignity. They build relationships and bonds that leave legacies. Doris Oliphant was one such woman. Šala gabotse magog, hamba kahle.
Professor Anita Bosch holds the University of Stellenbosch Business School Research Chair: Women at Work and teaches in the both the Leadership and Organisational Behaviour tracks.