Domestic Labour: 21st Century Apartheid?

2014-07-21 13:32

As an employer of domestic labour in South Africa, I was concerned to discover that I am viewed by a ‘thought leader’ of the Mail & Guardian as a modern-day colonial oppressor. Perhaps LL Fikeni’s first mistake was to accept Alice Mann’s self-appointed title of ‘artist’. Mann’s latest collection of photographic portraits is, as Fikeni rightly states, ‘empty and appallingly lazy.’ But it is not, as he grants in his next sentence, art. For anyone interested in a discussion of what is and what isn’t art, I highly recommend listening to Grayson Perry’s excellent lecture on the subject.

One of Alice Mann's Domestic Bliss Portraits

‘These women,’ he says, speaking of the maids depicted in Mann’s portraits, ‘are not previously disadvantaged, they are currently oppressed in wealthy, suburban homes as they were oppressed during apartheid... I argue that their agency lies buried in their silences, their endurance of the condition in which they find themselves in a free society... This is not an involuntary agency, but the only logical agency to the cultural materialism that has been forced onto their existence, our existence, by centuries of colonialism and oppression, which persists till this very day.’I absolutely see that everything about Mann’s work—from the title, Domestic Bliss, to the ‘artist’s statement’—was shallow, fake, and disturbingly naive, but I am struggling to understand the justification for Fikeni’s response.

I just so happened to be working from home on the day that I read this article. Anna, our maid, was sitting at the table sending an SMS and eating the sandwich I had just prepared for her lunch. I, too, was enjoying a sandwich while I took a short break from my work. As I looked over at Anna I asked myself, as honestly as I could, whether I was actively oppressing her by employing her to clean our house.

‘If you could do anything you wanted,’ I asked her, ‘what would it be?’ She said that she thought she would be a good social worker because she cares about people. Being unfamiliar with the structure of things over here (I have lived in South africa for less than three years) I wanted to know more about what one has to do to become a social worker. Anna explained that because she had not completed her matric education there was a course that she would have to attend, five nights a week, from 5pm to 8pm for an entire year. With five children and a husband at home it was simply impossible for her to find the time to accomplish this at this stage of her life.

I thought about people I know from the UK who, like Anna, didn’t complete their basic education. I also know some who, like Anna, had children very young. Nearly all of them are now having to make ends meet by working fairly menial jobs. They, like Anna, have other dreams and aspirations, but these are on long-term hold. South Africa is far from unique in this regard, and trying to point to racial inequality as the source for a domestic-labour economy requires one to completely ignore the numerous examples from around the world where the same trade exists along non-racial lines.

I know that Fikeni wasn’t accusing me of trekking into the township with a bullwhip and driving Anna to my home for a life of servitude, but his blanket-judgement of all whites who employ domestic labour was, from my experience and observation, a far cry from the truth. In my own home and in the homes of other people I know who employ domestic labour, I have seen personal relationships of mutual respect between employer and employee. These are relationships as genuine as any other I have witnessed and pay no regard to race, culture, or economics. They are based upon a common humanity.

If Fikeni had simply accused Mann of having a warped worldview that disabled her from understanding the depth and complexity of the dreams and ambitions of the women in her photographs, I would have nodded and agreed. Instead, however, he chose to attack an entire culture and race. ‘In the broader post-apartheid situation,’ he states, ‘many whites find themselves in this predicament. Their privilege [has] been accrued on the perpetual servitude of blacks to whites. Their humanity deliberately self-exorcised through 350 years of violent colonial rule, and later, the genocide that was apartheid, which bequeath them their cosy, middle-class suburban lives.’

Race is an illogical identifier. ‘I am white, therefore...’ is a sentence that can only be logically completed by describing the colour of my skin (and even that is of dubious veracity). There is no single trait that is exclusive to any particular race. Why, then, do we allow so much of the public discourse to be dominated by people who incessantly turn to race as the reason for x, y, and, z? Why would we want our ‘thought leaders’ to be full of such vehement racially-motivated anger?

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