Like family

Like family


An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.


Like Family book cover artwork.

Shortly after their arrival at the Cape in 1652, Maria and Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch “founding father” of South Africa, employed a young Khoi girl to take care of their children. Krotoa learnt to speak Dutch fluently, and Van Riebeeck realized she could act as an interpreter during bartering expeditions and negotiations with the local people. Not simply a pawn in Van Riebeeck’s strategy on behalf of the Dutch East Indies Company to gain the upper hand at the Cape, Krotoa also had agency. Her position as both the first black nanny to work for a white family at the Cape and an important go-between figure, made me realize that the millions of black women who have worked in white households through the centuries since then are in their own ways also intermediaries, pivotal figures in the interracial South African contact zone. Like Krotoa, they are “outsiders within”; people with an exceptional knowledge of both black and white cultures.

The liberal social and economic historian CW de Kiewiet had already suggested in 1957 that the deepest truth about South Africa lies in the realization that the continued demand for land by white people was the cause of the entanglement between black and white which lead to exploitation and hostility. Parallel to this hunger for land ran the need for workers. “Precisely as this dependency grew, so whites tried to preserve their difference through ideology—racism.” Black people became landless and extremely poor, which led to even greater mutual involvement and interdependence. The migration of black women to cities and the work they did in the private spaces of white households led to a special kind of entanglement, and, in particular, to the racist assumption by even the youngest white child that black hands do the dirty work. The relationship between black domestic workers and white families over generations has inevitably led to patterns of decorum and behavior which convey much of the historically-grown entanglement between black and white.

The lives of practically all South Africans have been touched by the institution of paid domestic work: either because of the presence of an often motherly carer and cleaner, or by the absence of a mother who does paid housework for others. A complicated image of entanglement is therefore held in the collective South African memory, and during the past couple of years research has shown that white people often construct their memories of apartheid around domestic workers, realizing that the “learning” of white dominance hinged on their contact with black women in the home.

My new book, Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature (published by Wits University Press) is an investigation into the complex role and meaning of domestic workers in South African communities and literature. It argues that the intercultural contact zone of “maid & madam” relations is an important source by way of which an insight can be gained in the history of everyday interactions between black and white South Africans.

Like Family is a blend of sociology, history and literary analysis of an array of fictional and nonfictional stories. These are situated in Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban and Bloemfontein, though most are set in Johannesburg, with its unique migrant history. In a sense, the book may be regarded as a biography of domestic workers, and, without suggesting that there is a direct correspondence between “servants of art and those of life,” Like Family is meant to be a form of archival restitution.

In the first chapters of Like Family, information from life stories collected mainly by welfare and activist organizations and autobiographical work is combined with an overview of the historical and sociological development of labor relations in South Africa. Autobiographies of authors such as Es’kia Mphahlele and Sindiwe Magona are analyzed against the background of these demographical and political factors.

The second half of the book concentrates on literary representations of domestic worker characters, focusing on urban situations where the pass laws impacted extremely harshly on the lives of black people migrating to cities. Millions of lives of black women remain undocumented, but for every literary figure in a novel, song or poem over the centuries, some “real” woman was the inspiration and model. In some such stories domestic workers take a central role, but in many more even their brief and seemingly incidental appearances in “supporting roles,” whether opening doors or carrying trays, are insightful and often distressing. When reading these stories, Stuart Hall’s concept of the “circuit of culture,” the cycle of representation needs always to be taken into account: the way in which domestic workers are described influences the behavior of readers.

In Like Family, practically all the autobiographical narratives, short stories, novels, plays and poems that are discussed focus on the issue of borders, whether these were formally constructed by laws, or whether they relate to informal patterns of behavior and conventions, some of which have persisted since the times of slavery. Any story which deals with the issue may be told in such a way that it perpetuates stereotypes, or in a manner that results in a questioning of an entangled set-up. While it is possible that a “contact” is mutually beneficial, any benevolence on the part of the employer is inevitably entwined with paternalism, and therefore remains problematic.

The approach in this book has been to foreground the personal in the political sphere: the focus therefore falls on individuals such as Krotoa and a few enslaved women who had gained entry into the historical archive, as well as the Sophies, Evelina’s and Flora’s who are to be found in literary work by authors such as André Brink, J.M. Coetzee,  Imraan Coovadia, Nadine Gordimer, Elsa Joubert, Antjie Krog, Sindiwe Magona, Zakes Mda, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sisonke Msimang, Zukiswa Wanner, Ingrid Winterbach and Zoë Wicomb. Like Family uncovers wry and subversive insights into South African society, capturing paradoxes relating to shifting power relationships.


This is an edited extract from the introduction to Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature (Wits University Press 2019).

Close Menu