For Mina Plaatjies, It is a delicate balancing act fulfilling her duties as domestic labourer, union organiser and weekend mom

Words by Janine Stephen | 21 Jun, 2015

For most of her adult life, Mina Plaatjies has lived in one, deeply quiet room in Constantia, an exclusive suburb in Cape Town. Visiting this subtly determined 40-year-old means transecting different lives. The house stands on a shady street. It has an intercom, and electric gates that slide silently open and then gently shut again. Every day, Mina exits the polished front door to collect the newspaper, tossed over the boundary wall. She walks back past an array of family treasures and photographs in the lobby. The owner, Joan Friedmann (70, not her real name) and her husband, Matthew (not his real name), collected antiques; the formal rooms in the house are museum-like both in the scope of objects on display, and the hushed atmosphere. Left from the lobby is a cosy sitting room. A right turn takes Mina to the kitchen, where she may scan the headlines while making 4pm tea. To reach her own room, she will unlock the back door, pass the clothes line, climb a step and enter her room. As she speaks, Mina may drop references to “life outside”, how expensive it is, for example, but also how different. Because inside her employer’s Constantia home, Mina inhabits a work persona; outside, she is another person.

Mina has cooked and cleaned in this family home for 18 years. She’s on duty from 8am to 2pm, and again from 4pm to 7pm, Monday to Friday. If she works overtime—on public holidays, weekends, or at night—she receives extra pay. She also makes a little extra doing washing and cleaning for Joan’s youngest son, Daniel (not his real name). She eats the same food as the rest of the household, sometimes sharing a meal in front of the television. She wears fleecy tracksuit pants and jumpers in winter, and a cotton overcoat in summer, also supplied by Joan. Mina is reluctant to divulge her basic salary—it is well over the minimum wage for domestic workers, but not enough to exclude her from qualifying for state housing (the cut-off is over R3500). Her room in Constantia has a separate bathroom with a yellow glass window that looks onto the garden. It is equipped with furniture supplied by Joan, a TV and a microwave. Personal items are stuck to the cupboards: a letter from her son Davelin (19) and daughter Jody-Lynn (13), also a poster on the “new generation in Generations”. On the dresser stands a framed picture of Mina, groomed, immaculate and clad in a graduation robe: it records the day in 2011 this domestic worker and trade unionist received a diploma in adult education from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Prieska is a small community on the banks of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. The town’s name is an adaption of a Koranna word meaning “place of the lost she-goat”. The entire population of Prieska added up to less than the number of people living in Constantia when Mina grew up. In Prieska today, 92.5% of people speak Afrikaans and 30.2% of youth in the local SiyaThemba municipality are unemployed. In mostly English-speaking Constantia, a place of evenly spread privilege, 96% of people have jobs.

Mina has cooked and cleaned in the same family home for 18 years

“I came from a very poor background,” Mina says. It may in part be a reaction to being interviewed, but Mina is a serious person; she is not prone to jokes and flippancy. She thinks before she speaks, which is in English, a language she learnt after moving to Cape Town. Mostly she deploys her adopted language in the present tense. “In Prieska, people work on the farms, in the clinic, as domestic workers and sometimes contracts, like government [public works jobs] for a few months,” she says. “Otherwise, young people are just sitting.” Mina’s mother, Anna Niehoudt (77), was a domestic worker on a nearby sheep farm. Mina never met her real father. She was 14 or 15 when she recognised—or as Mina puts it, “opened my eyes”—to the fact that the farm worker her mother was married to was not her father. Life was hard; these were times when workers accepted anything they were given, Mina says. There was no minimum wage, and few rights.

Somehow, Mina made it to standard six, harbouring dreams of being a teacher. “I don’t think any little girls dream of becoming a domestic worker,” she says. “You don’t choose that, it just happens.” By this time she had three sisters and a brother, and the family had moved to town, which made it easier for the younger kids to go to school (they all studied further than Mina, although none completed matric). Mina’s stepfather drank a lot. He hit his wife, and Mina. “When you’re grown up, you sit and think about all these things. I think now, that was abuse. But my mother never understood this thing of abuse.”

Mina decided she needed to leave school and find work. She’d helped her mother on Saturdays and during the holidays—so she “knew the job”. At first she worked weekends for a local family. This contact found her a full-time job on an orange farm in Citrusdal, 200km north of Cape Town, where she looked after twins for about R600 a month. She sent her first salary cheque home to her mother untouched: the employers bought her everything, even toiletries. In Citrusdal she met a man, David Abrahams, also a farm worker. Mina had a son at 21, which caused problems with work. The relationship with David (who has passed on) also grew strained. And so she set her eyes on the city. She asked a friend to find her a job in Cape Town, because she “wanted to experience something more”. She arrived, alone, head stuffed with taxi route numbers and strange place names. A first job in Boston with a single mother, an estate agent, didn’t work out. The next was right here, in Constantia, with Joan.

Cape Town and migration are prickly subjects, and for unpalatable reasons: Democratic Alliance (DA) and African National Congress (ANC) politicians have, at various times over the past 15 years, suggested that changing demographics could influence voting outcomes. Unpublished research by Professor Susan Parnell of the African Centre for Cities at UCT indicates that many perceptions about migration to the city are inaccurate. In 2005, she found that contrary to fears of “hordes” of migrants arriving from provinces such as the Eastern Cape, many migrants were affluent people such as retirees from Gauteng, or highly skilled professionals, from inside and outside South Africa. Parnell also notes that much of Cape Town’s growth is “natural” (babies born in the city), not due to migration.

Migration statistics from Census 2011 bear this out. Of a total population of 5.8 million people in the Western Cape, 172 628 people said their “province of previous residence” had been the Eastern Cape. In comparison, almost 75 000 had previously lived in Gauteng, and 115 000 had moved to the province from “outside South Africa”; the Northern Cape, where Mina is originally from, accounted for only 17 868 migrants. Not everyone stays either: from 2001 to 2011, over 234 000 people left the Western Cape. Urbanisation is a feature of growth in cities across the world, and the driving force for many is a job and a chance at a different way of life. But jobs aren’t that easy to come by: unemployment in South Africa has jumped from 15% in 1995 to 25% in 2014. (Throw in all those not seeking work, and it rockets to 35%). In Cape Town and the Western Cape, unemployment fell from 29% in 2001 to 24% in 2011. Of course, different areas tell different stories. The spatially excluded townships are worst off: 38% of Khayelitsha residents are unemployed, and a staggering 72% of all households in the township bring in less than R3200 a month.

The labour market in Cape Town has seen a long-term decline in manufacturing, but a growth of service sector jobs. As a result, unskilled workers with poor numeracy or literacy skills have it tougher than in the past, a trend that is likely to continue. Professor Owen Crankshaw, a sociologist at UCT, and HSRC researcher Jacqueline Borel-Saladin’s work confirms that unskilled manual jobs haven’t grown much in comparison to clerical, sales, managerial and professional jobs, which means those with poor education remain at a disadvantage in the job market. Writing in the Sunday Times, Crankshaw points out how the growth of the black middle class is contributing to less segregated suburbs—but poor townships are still home to high numbers of unemployed people. “This new pattern of segregation is a division between the racially mixed, middle-class suburbs on the one hand and the black, working class townships with high levels of unemployment on the other.”

My mother was a domestic worker. My father was a garden boy. That’s why I’m a unionist

Despite the challenges, the possibilities for personal metamorphosis in the city—beyond merely finding work—are enormous compared to rural Prieska, where gender roles and social divides are rooted in tradition as well as class and circumstance. Mina’s own experiences have taken her across the usual city spatial divides. As a domestic worker, she lives in the back room of an expensive suburb, but in her other identity as a trade unionist, she travels not only to some of Cape Town’s poorest neighbourhoods, but even to other cities.

It’s June 16, Youth Day, and the community hall at Khayelitsha’s Site C taxi rank is filled with sound. Mina is transformed. She wears her smart shoes and walks at the helm of a column of women who wave a banner bearing the logo of a woman with a broom in one hand and raising her free fist. Mina is doing the same. Another banner portrays a small silhouette of a woman pushing a vacuum: it is Mina in Joan’s lounge. Struggle songs wash over the audience of school children and a smattering of workers. “My mother was a domestic worker / my father was a garden boy / that’s why I’m a unionist”. Also on the programme is a play. Mina and her colleagues take to the stage to act out confrontations between madams and workers. A scene in which a worker doubles up as an ironing board, and a furious madam demands to know who will pay for a damaged dress, is a great success. The message: join the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu) for protection from unfair labour practices and dismissal.

This is Mina’s other life. How she got here goes back to 12 years ago, when Mina found herself with a tricky work question. She asked another domestic worker in the area for advice; as it turned out, that worker had picked up a Sadsawu flyer—the union targets post-boxes in likely residential areas. A call to the office led to a meeting with a union leader, who carefully explained her rights. Mina’s interest was piqued. She gradually attended more meetings, and later signed up with the Constantia branch. Mina is now vice-chair of the Cape Town region of Sadsawu and an executive member of the union’s National Executive Council.

The Sadsawu Khayelitsha event, held in a stark community hall, celebrated International Domestic Workers Day, the day the International Labour Organisation voted in favour of Convention 189, a treaty that acknowledges domestic workers worldwide “as equal to any other wage earners”. South Africa ratified the treaty in 2013. For weeks, Mina and other Sadsawu members had gathered on precious Sundays off to practice songs for the choir and plan the “play”. Different branches—from Strand to Constantia and Kuils River, and from Plattekloof to Camps Bay and Sea Point—all attended. A worker named Gloria Kente (50) retold a workplace story that had made the front page of the local paper days before. The audience gasped and shifted as the words “kaffir” and “spat at my face” were spoken. (The perpetrator, Andre van Deventer, was ordered to pay Kente R50 000 in damages by the Equality Court in October; he still faces charges of common assault and crimen injuria.) It was a reminder of how vulnerable workers isolated in private homes can be.

Before democracy, domestic workers, like farm workers, had no labour rights at all. A minimum wage was only written into law in 2002, unemployment insurance benefits followed a year later. Legislation has begun to change widespread abuse in the sector, but compliance is far from the norm. Research initiated in 2009 by the University of the Western Cape’s Social Law project found that domestic workers were still “undervalued and underpaid” and that there was a “poor level of compliance and monitoring” in the sector. That few domestic workers are unionised or “organised” doesn’t help.

The Khayelitsha meeting coincided with a bout of bad weather. Attendance was poor, especially considering there had been a recruitment drive in this 420 000-strong township the week before; Mina’s union is keen to build membership in areas like Khayelitsha. Still, there was a small scramble for membership forms when the speeches ended. “They opened my eyes,” said local resident Sylvia Siko, originally from East London and now a domestic worker in Melkbosstrand.

By 2:30pm, free boerewors rolls had been consumed and the festivities were over. On the way home, the members I was with peered with interest at the stalls lining the roads around the taxi rank. The contrast between the stillness of the domestic workers’ hidden backyard rooms and the lively street life and trade was suddenly stark. Some 33% of South Africans are informally employed. The informal economy, where most jobs involve trade of some sort, often delivers very low incomes (a 2004 paper by Annie Devenish and Caroline Skinner for the School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, found that over 50% of informal traders earned under R500 a month, and 92% under R2500). Yet like many domestic worker salaries, these incomes sustain and feed large numbers of dependents and contribute significantly to local economies.

One of the big perks of domestic work is the possibility—and it is really a lottery—of encountering an individual employer who is prepared to pay for a decent education for a child, or driving lessons, or provide access to resources, opportunities and ideas. It’s a way of crossing the spatial divides that still splice the city into territories that exclude people on the basis of class, which inevitably can mean race, too. However complicated by unequal power dynamics, it’s a chance of accessing social strata that would otherwise be closed off. There are benefits.

A University of Stellenbosch study into the “linking ties” between domestics and their employers found that in comparison to households where the breadwinner earned a similar salary but in a more formal, anonymous setting (like a factory), “the households of domestic workers appear to have lower unemployment duration and better quality jobs, a higher likelihood of owning assets and a lower prevalence of child and adult hunger”. The study adds, “the linking ties of domestic workers with their more affluent employers increase well-being”. Of course, the informal gift giving practiced by employers is far from uncomplicated: in her book From Servants to Workers (2009) sociologist Shireen Ally suggests that it can be “a strategy of power and control”, designed to increase dependence.

Domestic workers are still undervalued and underpaid and that there is a poor level of compliance and monitoring in the sector

Sadsawu’s head office is based in Community House on Salt River Road. A face-brick building that in the early 1900s housed an organisation representing young white Afrikaans women who had moved to the city to find jobs, the building is better known as Cosatu House, after its anchor tenant, the largest trade union federation in the country. Before it was turned into a labour activist base in the 1980s it was a “dilapidated auto-workshop”. Now, though, its walls are adorned with worker murals and history. It is here that Sadsawu president Hester Stephens and treasurer Gladys Mnyengeza are based. The union, founded in 2000, has 26 000 members; about 5000 are active. Cape Town is the strongest region. It represents primarily domestic workers, although care workers, chauffeurs and gardeners are also welcome.

The South African Institute for Race Relations estimates that the number of domestic workers dropped 5% from over 1.2 million in 2003 to 1.1 million in 2012. A number of reasons have been posited, from smaller homes to changing culture and labour laws. However, a study by UCT economist Haroon Bhorat has found that the introduction of a minimum wage for domestic workers had not had a negative effect on employment, and real hourly wages had increased. Right now, a key issue is the current review of the minimum sector wage of around R1800 a month. Sadsawu is pushing for R2500, or R150 a day. “Less isn’t even enough for food,” Stephens told a caller during a radio interview. “If you can’t afford to pay the minimum wage, don’t employ a worker as it’s not fair to them. Or employ her for some days and give her a chance to earn more money for the rest of the week.”

Sadsawu offers its members a formal network of support and advice, invaluable to city workers in ways that are not always obvious. Informal networks—such as the chain of domestic workers from Prieska to Citrusdal and Cape Town that helped Mina find work—are as important, especially for live-in domestics whose links to the outside world can be minimal.

Crankshaw has done some fascinating research on job seeking in Cape Town. He tackles theories that presume that those living in spatially disconnected townships are at a disadvantage when seeking work, thanks to the costs of travel, lack of information, social networks restricted to their own neighbourhood, and fewer work opportunities nearby. Happily, some sidestep this divide. Crankshaw found that many employers liked to hire a manual worker through a referral rather than, say, an advertisement—so for workers, any connections made in workplaces and non-geographical spaces (arguably unions, or social groups from sports to church) could result in a referral. Referrals were particularly important for domestic workers, who have strong connections to their employers, and small businesses, where workers did jobs alongside managers.

Janine Stephen is an independent journalist and editor living and writing in Cape Town