How normal is society’s normality? ‘The Ma(i)de Sessions’ – a talk show with domestic workers

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Garret Gantner
Johannesburg, 13 July 2016

The affluent suburbs of South African cities are served by a massive domestic work force. Across the country, approximately one fifth of all women work as domestic workers in an industry that has been deeply shaped by social, political, economic and cultural forces. Perhaps ever since the days when South Africa had been a colonial slave society was a servant class a societal norm, and later, during apartheid, black women became domestic workers for white households due to restrictions on jobs black people could perform (by law they could not perform any skilled labor). Thus today, upper-middle class households are mostly white, domestic workers mostly poorly-educated black women (African and coloured), and gardeners mostly black men. Such prescriptive gender, racial, and class dynamics (although in the last two decades the middle-class has begun to diversify somewhat) forms an entrenched and unquestioned part of the structural normalities of contemporary South African society.

Rights, wages, legislation and living conditions all remain the key issues. Over half of domestic workers earn the minimum wage (R2065.47 or $144 per month in 2014), and even the more ‘generous’ employers still generally fall short of the R5056 ($352) estimated in 2015 as a household's minimal monthly need. Formed when the presence of black people in the cities was illegal, it is also an industry that imposes forced migrancy on workers. Many domestic workers live on the property of their employer in ‘servants quarters’, separated from their families and full social lives, or alternatively they commute from the former government sanctioned black townships or from more recently formed informal settlements. Within such established frameworks, domestic work is often characterised by fragmented social lives, poverty, vulnerability to exploitation, and feelings of inferiority and racial prejudice.

These issues, despite their ubiquity, are rarely the subject of sustained discussion in the public sphere. Only occasionally – but always contentiously and emotively – do they emerge. But one team wishes to extend the discussion, to forefront the voices of domestic workers themselves, and to plant it firmly in the public sphere. The team is made up of two young black professional women, Mbali Njomane and Tuliza Sindi, who established ‘The Ma(i)de Sessions’ in early 2016, a talk show featured as a weekly podcast on the popular CliffCentral online radio platform.

The duo see the project as a work of empowerment, to "awaken historically unheard voices whilst elevating them to their rightful place in our social, cultural, and economic narratives." Like the protagonist in the 2011 American period film, 'The Help', who writes a book from the point of view of the maids, the show also branches away from traditional activism to offer a broader contribution: “Domestic workers and cleaners occupy a unique position in a society. (…)These women have the potential to be the most powerful and astute social commentators as they hold a mirror to ourselves, to our children, and to our fellow citizens.” The team plans to develop the platform to bring these "invisible" people together with other diverse groups into one conversation: "I’m talking about bringing together taxi drivers, Jewish trust fund kids, Afrikaner capitalists, and Indian housewives for instance."

In both analytical and intimate ways, the themes they wish to explore are ambitious, such as wealth and poverty, animal rights, the politics of the built environment, injustice within the legal system, customary and Western law, women’s empowerment, and tradition and modernity. They invite us to "be a fly on the wall" – along with them – as they embark on this unique and oblique social project, with society’s integral but invisible people as its moral compass.

Photo: A ‘gardener’ cleans windows in an affluent Johannesburg suburb. Credit: Tariq Toffa

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