Janine Stephen

The Unionist

Mina Plaatjies is a domestic worker and trade unionist. She is also a mother of two adolescent children. It is a delicate balancing act fulfilling her duties as domestic labourer, union organiser and weekend mom. But Mina is committed: she wants her children to have more than she did.







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) and her husband, Matthew*, 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*. 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). 

For the last 20 years, Mina Plaatjies has worked for a family in Constantia, one of the city's wealthiest suburbs


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. ​

“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. 

I came from a very poor background

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.”

Plaatjies lives in a back room behind her employer's house during the week while her adolescent daughter, Jody-Lynn, stays in a room in Grassy Park which they rent on monthly basis. Jody-Lynn makes her own way to Simon van der Stel Primary in Wynberg, 15 kilometers away. Mother and daughter spend time together on weekends

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.  

Plaatjies lives two lives: that of her full-time job, and that of her work in Sadsawu —South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu). She is the vice chair of the union's Cape Town regional branch, as well as an executive member of the union's National Executive Council.


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. 


Due to the crisis of unemployment, informality and casualisation is an integral part of the regional economy. Domestic workers and other support services are widely used by the middle-classes. This map shows the work status of Capetonians.

Source:Statistics SA, Census 2011


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.” 

Community House on Salt River Road, also known as Cosatu House, after the largest trade union in South Africa, is where the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu) is headquartered.

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. 

Mina Plaatjies at a Sadsawu meeting held at the Community Hall in Site C, Khayelitsha. In the past few years her family and union commitments have gradually been taking her further from Constantia, and the changing needs of both herself and Denise have had to be negotiated.

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

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 following 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.

Union members cheer during a Sadsawu meeting in the community hall in Khayelitsha, a largely informal settlement in Cape Town. The event was to celebrate International Domestic Workers Day, and branches from across the city of Cape Town attended. Khayelitsha is an area from which Mina would like to gain more membership.

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.

On the programme for a Sadsawu event in Khayelitsha was a skit enacted by Plaatjies and her colleagues about confrontations between ‘madams’ and workers. Live-in domestic workers can often be isolated within the intimate confines of their work. The union offers its members a formal network of support and advice related to working conditions.

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.

Plaatjies on a regular work day


It is 2pm, Mina’s lunch break. Private security cars cruise the empty avenues. Rain melts the features of hardy dog walkers. Neighbouring domestic workers—a Zimbabwean woman, a mom from Malawi—emerge from their high-walled properties. Mina says the number of foreigners employed in areas like Constantia has grown, although she shows no hint of xenophobia. Perhaps there is tacit recognition that she too was once a migrant. Sadsawu does not condone foreign workers being paid less. The two workers Mina is seeing today are South Africans. The first is an older woman who gives Mina strict instructions not to ring the bell. She scoots outside a formidable wall to pick up her membership card, admitting that her employer doesn’t know she’s a member.

“Undercover” members are common, Mina says. She understands the fear of disclosure, because she was once one herself. Mina believes that the employer feels this worker is getting too old. She’ll explain the law: that the worker is entitled to long-service pay (a week’s pay per year worked), and should apply for a government pension. Mina has become adept at explaining legal requirements and the possibility for different forms of intervention to workers, be it approaching the CCMA, negotiation, or using legislation such as sending inspectors to private homes.

The second member ushers us into her room where a two-bar heater is going double-time and a Bollywood soapie is flickering on SABC2. Her employers are elderly—82 and 84—and she is deeply worried about her position if they pass on. She “lives in” and is paid R500 a week. Should she lose her job, she would not only be unemployed, but homeless. The worker quizzes Mina closely about applying for housing. It later emerges that Mina had heard, via Joan, about a domestic worker’s saving scheme that had applied to the city for housing. Mina enquired, but they were not taking on new members. So she approached Cosatu directly to intervene on behalf of Sadsawu’s members. Negotiations with the savings project representatives and the province’s Human Settlements department took place, and the upshot is that Sadsawu members are now eligible to apply for 40-odd homes, soon to be built in Pelican Park. (Mina is helping others apply.) Mina also tells the Constantia worker about an essential meeting, commiserates about her insecure position, and promises to bring a form around for computer classes Sadsawu has organised at UWC through Cosatu.

In 2011, Plaatjies graduated with a diploma in education from the University of Cape Town as part of a programme which aims to bring knowledge into the unions which was organised by Cosatu and the university.

The circumstances of live-in domestic workers, observes Parnell, mirror classic migrant labour systems and drive circular migration (in 2000 about a third of domestics were live-in workers). They are provided with accommodation for as long as they can work, much like mine workers in hostels. “What happens when you retire?” Parnell asks. “You’re much more likely to go home [back to the place of origin, where there are family networks] if you haven’t actually become a citizen of the city.”


Cape Town absorbs the bulk of the labour force employed in the city while the informal sector accounts for 9,1% of total employment in the city according to available data. 
There is a huge gap in what is known about the informal economy and it’s contribution towards Cape Town’s and South Africa’s economy.

Source: Statistics South Africa (2011 Census)



I first met Mina in 2013, when she served coffee in Joan’s living room and Joan told of her diploma from UCT, and her trips to Durban and America for the union. She also teased Mina about an allergy to dust. Mina doesn’t often say much in front of her employer. For many years, the two have had to negotiate complex and changing needs, within the intimate confines of a family home. Children have come and grown, both Mina’s and Joan’s—times have changed. When Mina arrived, she was “very countrified” and “unsophisticated”, recalls Joan. “She spoke no English.” Mina remembers the salary, which was around R800 a month, the size of the home and its array of personal objects. Mina liked Joan, who she calls a “good woman”, although “it was a bit difficult getting to know her. She’s got her moods and the way she likes things, like everyone.” 

Joan Friedmann is from Kimberley, the Northern Cape provincial capital, situated 230km east of Prieska. Her parents held important positions in the provincial health system. Joan also “migrated” to Cape Town. She came to the city to study physiotherapy; she is a sharply intelligent woman who holds a Masters of Philosophy in medical bioethics, has lectured at the University of the Western Cape, and for many years did different locums at hospitals and charities. She met law student and “soul mate” Matthew one night at the Snakepit, a social venue in Muizenberg. They had three children, all now “properly trained and with a good education, so they make their own jobs”. 

The Friedmanns built their Constantia house nearly five decades ago. For many years, the house was a bustling place: the family was sociable and held many parties. Then, unexpectedly one afternoon 13 years ago, Matthew collapsed after helping Joan carry in some shopping bags. He died later that night of a brain aneurism. And slowly, the house emptied out. Joan’s mother moved in about 10 years ago and until July this year, when she passed away at age 96, the two women lived here alone, with Mina in her room. Life is quieter, the only disruption the odd movie shoot—the house is rented out for location shoots. 

In the past few years, Mina’s own life has gradually been taking her further from Constantia, for longer, to Grassy Park, a suburb which the 2011 Census describes as largely coloured with an unemployment rate of 13.5%. On a street full of playing children is a house with a neat lawn and a cluster of frangipani trees; it has no fence. Around the back is a separate entrance with a small kitchen, a slim bathroom and a bedroom. Mina rents this space for R1890 a month, a cost she shares with a lodger, also from Prieska. Her adolescent daughter, Jody-Lynn, lives here and on weekdays—when Mina is in Constantia—makes her own way to Simon van der Stel Primary in Wynberg.

Jody-Lynn has always gotten on well with Joan. She remembers receiving sweets, clothing and her granddaughter’s toys. “She bought my brother a phone. Sometimes Joan will ask me to have supper with them. I enjoy it. At first I didn’t know how to eat with a knife and fork.” Jody-Lynn and her brother have stayed in Constantia at times, including for weekends and holidays. She would share her mother’s bed, Davelin slept on the floor. As they’ve grown older, Mina has sensed a less welcoming attitude. She felt that electricity and food costs became an issue; Joan also expressed discomfort when Davelin brought older friends around. 

Eventually, Mina decided to find her own room. Joan paid the deposit. Now every weekend, she heads to Grassy Park, and sometimes will stay overnight after union or school events. Mina has braais with family and friends. “It is fantastic to have my own place, I need a break from the work,” she says. “Even if I pay a lot for the room, I need to come out of that situation. On a Friday I just feel so relieved.” On the odd night she’ll head down to the hotel or the civic hall for a karaoke evening. Her favourite song is Whitney Houston’s ‘On my Own’, an expressive song in which the deceased singer offers: “I never had a chance to do things my way / So now it’s time for me to take control / And I am not afraid to try it on my own.”

Back in 2001, five men attacked Joan in her driveway. She is, as a result, very aware of security. Increasingly, she didn’t like to leave her elderly mother alone. When she employed Mina, she worked every second weekend too. “I employed a sleep-in, full time maid,” Joan says. “Not to say that she’s not entitled to her off days, but now every Friday night she’s gone and Saturday and Sunday night, and all public holidays.” She worries about the extra costs of the Grassy Park flat for Mina: rent, transport (R28 a return trip) and food. But now that Mina is not permanently based in Constantia, inevitable extra requests for time off (for school and union events) cause tension. Joan is obviously uncomfortable about this dilemma; her friends, she says, think she’s a pushover. But she is more sympathetic than some. 

“I know Mina for who she is,” she says. “As mad as everyone thinks I am, I appreciate what she does. My life has been for the underdog, and Mina does not have a nice easy life. She has had to bring up these children in circumstances where she’s constrained by her work hours; she can’t do the normal things that other parents would be free to do. She’s entitled to her human life and yet she’s in bondage—it’s very simple. I recognise the need for her own life. I’ve encouraged it. She’s done amazing things.” 

For years, Mina confined her union activity to weekends and “off days” only. She was still undercover, thinking that her employer would view her union membership as “about fighting”, not opportunities. Mina absorbed the new knowledge she encountered like a sponge. There were workshops on basic rights and minimum wages, HIV, and also health and safety, which was when she realised cleaning products were contributing to her eczema and asthma. When she was elected to her branch, the workload suddenly soared: she was responsible for advising others as well as administrative tasks like collecting fees—and there were always meetings, and soon a leadership course too. Her membership status eventually came out; it was a non-event, in a way, considering all the secrecy. Mina continued to grasp every chance she could to learn. She has a sheaf of certificates. Her passport includes stamps from a 2013 trip to America with Solidarity, funded by the US government.

I never had a chance to do things my way / So now it’s time for me to take control / And I am not afraid to try it on my own
As part of her Union activities, Plaatjies has travelled to various parts of the world

Another winter’s night in Cape Town near another public transport hub, this time the Mowbray Town Hall. Mina has arrived by taxi from Constantia, having asked to leave work early. There is an air of urgency in the crowd, noisily seated below a drooping Democratic Left Front banner. This is not business as usual, no matter how familiar the struggle songs and liberation slogans. Speaker after speaker—they include a Lonmin miner and Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) members—lambasts government, media, bosses: the issue at hand is the protracted platinum strike and the proposed salary of R12 500. Labour activists brief the crowd. 

Did they know the platinum sector’s wage share has inched down to 36% from 44%? They tell how the state and capitalists (presented as allies) believe they “have to defeat the strike in case the mood spreads”. They also say that the question must shift from “What can we afford?” to “What salary will produce a decent life?” A farm worker union pledges support to the striking miners, saying “a victory for the miners will be a victory for the farm workers”. There is a heady sense of defiance. Scalding criticism is poured on the ANC and DA, with repeated mentions of the lack of sanitation in the townships. Mina listens with care. Later she stands to sing in support.

Mina is not overtly political. We’d previously discussed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which expressed support for labourers by wearing domestic worker uniforms to the opening of parliament a few days before. She approved of the gesture, especially, as she says, parliamentarians all rely on domestic workers to keep their households going, yet few support calls to up the minimum wage. As for the EFF itself, Mina remains unsure: “I see this thing on TV and in the newsletters and the question going through my mind is when Malema was rich, he never thought of domestic workers.” She speaks of the platinum strike in clipped terms, only saying that it had gone on too long and all she could think about were the families who were suffering. 

Children. This is who domestic workers work for, and worry about. Cruelly, it is the employer’s child that a domestic worker ends up raising, while their own children are neglected. Mina had to leave Davelin and Jody-Lynn with relatives when they were six months old. “All of us domestic workers go through the same thing,” Mina says. “The child blames you. He says you’re never there for me; you dumped me with the grandmother. But what must you do? You have to go to work so that he can get education … it’s very difficult for the child to understand. Even my child said, ‘You were never there for me as a mother’.” 

In 2009 Mina was chosen by Sadsawu to study for a UCT education diploma (adult education), a two-year gender studies course, sponsored by a Dutch NGO, aimed at building knowledge within Cosatu-affiliated unions. In return, post-course, she and the other unionists would offer gender workshops directly to their members. The workers negotiated for time off to attend classes for an intense week every two months. Mina bartered her annual leave: “I didn’t see my (Northern Cape) family for two years”. There were also tutorials on Saturdays, assignments and research. “It was very hectic, I didn’t even have time for my kids.” The study experience was near overwhelming, not only scholastically: “I always thought only those who had high education who could go [to UCT].”  Everything was new, from the enormous library and grounds to the topics covered (patriarchy, emotional, verbal and physical abuse, domestic violence, protection orders and so on). The big test was giving a first workshop to Sadsawu members. 

“One of the older domestic workers went out the room in tears,” she recalls. “Her own husband abused her … I didn’t know there were workers in our own union who had problems. So when the lady started crying, I knew we were doing the right job.” Now domestic violence is something the union speaks openly about. One of the songs the choir performed was a Zulu lament:  “I had a boyfriend / he was jealous / he brought thunder.”

Mina has fierce hopes for her own children. “I don’t want the children to end up where I ended up, in the kitchen,” she says. “For me education is very important and I have been learning myself. I said to them, look, any education I can get, I’m grabbing with open hands. They say it’s very difficult for young people to find jobs. The women next door does administration at [a supermarket] and she says even the cleaners now must have matric.” Davelin, who has just passed two supplementary exams to get his matric, wants to be a nurse. Jody-Lynn is doing well at school, both at sports and academically, despite having to be self-sufficient for much of the week. She has a head full of dreams: joining the army, becoming a tug-of-war coach (one of her school sports), or an actor or dancer. Mina wants to send her to Hoërskool Jan van Riebeeck in the City Bowl next year, and is trying to get an interview at the Afrikaans high school so that she can ask for a bursary, or at least a subsidy. 

Mina is full of warmth when she speaks of her children, but she’s strict when speaking to them. Calling home one afternoon, she keeps it short. Has Jody washed out her school shirts? No? She must. Jody says she’s proud of her mother because she “makes a difference in the world and stands up for domestic workers”. But, she adds, “I don’t know anyone who wants to become a domestic worker.” We meet during a long afternoon study session in Mina’s Constantia bedroom. “Most people in our community want to go further in life and become more.” It’s not simply about money, Jody adds, recalling something her grandmother told her. Money is the devil’s thing. “It’s not the whole world.”

Today, the future seems to hold few fears for Mina, despite uncertainties created by Joan’s mother’s passing (the Constantia house, for example, could be sold). After 18 years in Cape Town, she seems to be assessing how far she’s come, and how much more life might offer. She hints at a growing personal life, a possible relationship. There is room to stretch and breathe. She expects to remain in the city, hoovering up all opportunities for learning she can, at least until Jody finishes school. Mina’s role in the union is cemented. Her housing project work is opening up even further horizons (she has met the Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, at the Pelican Park site where the houses allocated to union members are to be built). As it is, the Sadsawu leadership is growing older, and making space for younger members. That she was chosen for the American trip suggests that there are efforts to push her further. She wants to become more involved in CCMA processes and attend hearings. 

But mostly, she hopes to leave domestic work behind. It is not that Mina is blasé about leaving her employer, who she certainly cares for and is tied to on levels that are difficult to explain. But her choice of words says much about domestic work’s most intractable dilemma: that it feeds someone else’s needs. “I won’t be a domestic worker forever. I need a change. I always see a vision for us domestic workers: you don’t have to [get] stuck there in your employer’s house.” Her dream is to one day do gender work for an NGO. And possibly even leave Cape Town, return to her roots, to Prieska—“where you can go everywhere by feet” and woman like her are hungry for knowledge. She wants to teach others the rights she has discovered during her studies, and help women like her mother, who never understood abuse, to see a different future. It is a future in the making. 

Mina’s years as a domestic worker are interesting in that her job has not defined her life or future opportunities. The networks she has cultivated, in particular through the union, have proved stepping-stones to greater independence. Mina has breached the walls of her employer’s home and accessed more city spaces than many. “When I started going to union meetings, that’s where I started growing,” she agrees. “You have to understand things before you can go forward. The knowledge came step by step.”


Work: Youth underemployment diary (Cape Town CBD)


Editor: Sean O'Toole & Tau Tavengwa

Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Film: Periphery Films

Infographics: Blain van Rooyen

Digital Design: Pixel Project