Maria Mahlangu is still dead. How many Maria Mahlangus died without justice?

Maria Mahlangu is still dead. We do not know how many Maria Mahlangus died without a voice, without their story making news, without justice. Many domestic workers are in jeopardy because our homes (their workplaces) are not always safe workplaces. We can end this, by joining the call of thousands of domestic workers to end the era of exclusion, of them being treated as third-class workers. 

Domestic workers, predominantly Black women, make up “more than 8%” of Black workers in South Africa, far outnumbering Black professionals in our workforce. The way we treat domestic workers (in law and in our homes) is an expression of our disdain for Black bodies, for Black women’s bodies and their labour as a nation. The extent to which we continue to extract their labour with little recognition of their dignity and rights, and even less legal recognition, is a moral outrage, a profound injustice. This is a cause we are obligated by our morality and our sense of justice to get behind. If there are more than 2million domestic workers in this country, this is a cause of millions of us in this nation. 

Let this be where we begin our full stop to injustice, gendered injustice. It is an outrage that this had to go to court to begin with, but it has come to that. Tomorrow domestic workers will be in court to defend what should be a constitutional right. How will you stand with them? It is not enough to be nice to Mavis, although Mavis deserves all the respect you should give. We can do something more fundamental than that, that improves the lives of all the Mavis’s. So, dear friend, how will you show up for the people who show up for millions of our families every day? 

Domestic workers, their union formations and those who support them started the campaign under the Domestic Workers Rising banner. They are co-founders of #Shayisfuba, an intersectional movement of womxn individuals and formations who’ve come together to build solidarity with each other, to learn about and fight common struggles. The movement is saying a feminist government would have prioritised equal protection for all workers, particularly the least protected, domestic workers. It is not too late!

(Image Credit 1: Shayisfuba / Facebook) (Image Credit 2: New Frame)

#SADecides2019: Today I’ll be voting for the future, for the ones that will bring us closer to ourselves, to each other

Every minute I believe this. It’s what keeps me going, why I do what I do, what explains the choices I’ve made in life and perhaps those I shall yet make, what makes me who I am. The unwavering belief in the power of people to make a country, a society. To heal themselves and each other. They may get lost in the woods sometimes, sometimes for quite a while. But eventually, they find themselves. 

I’ve come to know intellectually, intimately, how broken societies are a manifestation of broken people.

Today I’ll be voting for the future. For the political formations of the future. The ones that will bring us closer to ourselves, to each other. Those that will inspire us to heal, and to lead ourselves and each other from the inside out. Those who will remind us to honour our own promises to ourselves, and to make promises to each other that we can keep. The promise to love, to value genuinely, to care deeply. Those who will not inspire us by grandstanding on highwaters waving the pennant of empty militancy to our fragile hopes. Those who will remind us that we have survived this long because we are powerful and not because political parties of so-called leaders did anything for us. Who will reconnect us fiercely to our power within, our power to, our power with.

I am sick to my core of big bombastic words and shallow philosophies of big men who perform their fragile masculinity like it’s some spectacular show we zombies must cheer at. After so many years, I’m done with this fake show. As I go out to vote, I am carrying Alice Walker’s poem in my hand, in memory of my mother, my grandmother, all the broken ones in my family, my movement homes, the people known and unknown that I believe in because they believed in me, all the womxn and the theys who are the source of my belief in our hopeful future, the ones who literally hold up the sky from falling and crushing us all. 

And of course also I carry this book to keep me company in case I find no friends in the queue to talk to, such as Xthi Nxngxmso and Mmatshilo Tumelo Motsei. I’m also carrying this book to give as a gift to a new friend I may meet in the queue and discover could use it. It’s that kind of day, maCom.

Alice, thank you for the words, sisi wam, may we find our power in our brokenness!

I WILL KEEP BROKEN THINGS
                        by Alice Walker

I will keep
broken
things:
The big clay
pot
with raised
iguanas
chasing
their
tails;
two
of their
wise
heads
sheared
off;

I will keep
broken
things:
The old
slave
market
basket
brought
to my
door
by Mississippi
a jagged
hole
gouged
in its sturdy
dark
oak
side.

I will keep
broken
things:
The memory
of
those
long
delicious
night
swims
with
you;

I will keep
broken
things:
In my house
there
remains
an
honored
shelf
on which
I will
keep
broken
things.

Their beauty
is
they
need
not
ever
be
‘fixed.’

I will keep
your
wild
free
laughter
though
it is now
missing
its
reassuring
and

graceful
hinge.

I will keep
broken
things:

Thank you
so much!

I will keep
broken
things.
I will keep
you:

pilgrim
of
sorrow.

I will keep
myself.

Yet again we learn how inept at dealing with rape culture we are as a patriarchal, rapey society

So, yet again, we’re learning how inept at dealing with rape culture we are as a patriarchal, rapey society. Each time has become an opportunity to expose just how entrenched we are as reproducers of this rape culture. 

Womxn’s organisations and survivors fought for the right of survivors to be believed before we are criminalized while the rapist gets the benefit of the doubt (as is always the case and is the case with this Zizi situation). Oh and don’t ask me what it was to be at varsity on a Friday and witness our leaders (I could name some names indeed) back then already, coming for their Friday pick-ups of the fresh and fleshy beauts and no that was for no cadre political education sessions. And we all know the hand that lingers too long during the fake handshakes and the midnight knocks in your door by some envoy of some leader to check some nefarious thing in those all too important conferences with those all too important leaders. Yes, I know it and you know it!The complex dynamics of sexual relations, power and interactions on consent within such a context means the very premise of the law as it’s designed is wholly incapable of being an instrument of justice for the many survivors whose stories are a lot more “complex”, which is in fact the majority of survivors.

Whilst it helps no one to have our pain instrumentalised for extortionist or any such intentions, why is it that the default place for our response is they are extortionists?

It’s exactly because this is our default response that our suspicion, which may or may not turn out to be right, says more about us than it does about whether the accusers may in fact be extortionists. If this becomes an issue for you, in a context like South Africa where rape is a norm, that’s really just exposing your rape culture agent status. 

If justice means you pay me money for violence and trauma you’ve inflicted on me, whose bloody damn business is it to say what I want isn’t right? After witnessing how the criminal justice system ravages survivors, why would anyone with pure intentions question why a survivor may exercise her agency to protect themselves from that secondary trauma and victimization which is what this unjust system has come to symbolize? 

Who appointed you arbiter of survivors’ truth and justice! How about castigating the fact that women get raped exactly because the criminal justice system means a survivor has lost even before they enter the court’s door? The complexity of the truth of rape doesn’t fit in legal statutes, even with impeccable investigation. Why don’t you talk about who do we need to become for us to be capable of advancing justice for survivors instead? We have to reinvent ourselves to become capable of ending impunity. We have to learn a whole new way of seeing, analyzing, asking and articulating questions, a whole new set of questions, a whole new lens. And you can’t do that if you’re so caught up in your own privilege (the privilege to tell a survivor what justice they can ask for and prescribe timing for reporting and how they must feel), that’s unchecked privilege usurping the agency of the survivor. To end the culture of impunity, we need to do the hard work of changing ourselves, our lenses, and journeying to stop being agents of impunity. To those who want to do this, I’m right there, masambe Comrade! 

We’ve all made mistakes we wish we could erase, but it’s those mistakes that demand of us to be and to do different. We may not have the formula, but it won’t emerge like a pill from some rat experiment in a laboratory. It will emerge from active work we do to unlearn being agents of rape culture, intentionally and not. 

As for the rest, must be nice to have a right to appoint yourself judge and jury as it pleases. A real nice life problem!

(Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle)

Why I support the demands of domestic workers!


I was born from a mother of multiple identities. The daughter of a farmer who had no land but grew her own food in the space she was allowed on the farm where I was later born, Kwantaba Ziyatsha (place of burning mountains), or Seven Fountains to some. It was only when my grandmother was forcefully removed from the farm where she worked, birthed some of her children and farmed that she could have her own piece of land to grow more food to feed the troop of us grandchildren and many more in our village eMgababa. She was forcefully moved because she was getting old, wasn’t as “efficient” as Baas Robert needed her to be. All her children had left the farm to work in the mines or other farms or the “kitchens” in the towns.

By the time we moved to eMgababa (a village near Peddie), my mother had long left school to go and work in the neighbouring Grahamstown, eRhini or Makhanda as is now known. I am told she was a promising bright student who could have been one of the country’s best netball players. But for a young black girl who didn’t finish school, domestic work became the most obvious avenue and soon enough, she was working in white people’s hotels and homes.

Back then, the story of the “domestic worker” in South Africa was more black and white than it is today. Black women in the towns cleaned white people’s houses, looked after their children, maintained their households, releasing the family to go to school and engage in “productive” economic activities. Black women have always been central to the formation of the white economy in this country. They continue to be in contemporary South Africa’s black middle-class economy. It is still black women (South African born and migrant) who are the majority domestic workers today, an estimated one million of them working in the white suburbs and in the homes of today’s bourgeoning black middle classes.

My mother started domestic work at age 14, was a live-in domestic, which is code for a 24-hour worker available at the madam or master’s ring of the bell. Later we got to witness how she lived alongside her bosses. The family which she served the longest loved her alright. She was the real mother of the household, the one the children cried to when they fell or were hungry. In all the ways she was positioned as the stereotype: walked the dogs in her pink overalls, sometimes fetched the children from school in her pink overalls. She preferred blue but if she didn’t go with the Madam to choose the colour she wanted she got pink. Had to wear her overalls when serving family friends by the pool. Stayed in the garage even though there were enough bedrooms inside the house she cleaned and made a home for the family everyday.

I did not want to know too much about what else happened to her there. Her mood told it all when she came home. I got to experience and observe some of her daily life myself on the days I went to help her. Also, when I worked on my own for her “master” of 27 years during school holidays or weekends to make a little money, and when my mother was no longer well enough to work so I had to replace her when I could.

But my mother was not the stereotype. She was “cheeky”. Baas tolerated her as long as the Madam was alive. When Madam died suddenly the husband persecuted her out of a job of 27 years and robbed her of her entitlements. Madam was a truly nice woman who loved my mother in her own way. She helped save me from dying of a botched appendicectomy in the hands of an apartheid Surgeon who insisted I had an STD at 14 and would not let anyone else disagree with his untested diagnosis. Afterall, Master was the lawyer and she had no real rights under the law, or the ability to fight back against his cunning.

In my family, we used to joke that my mother was like Mandela, she did a 27-year sentence at her last employer. Difference was she got out of it with little if anything while Mandela got a presidency and a saintly status. She didn’t think the joke was funny, but it was too good a joke to not taunt her with. Afterall, she was the queen of mock.  She was so good at mocking others she could reduce a big man to a flimsy little straw with one joke, she wasn’t afraid of anyone. I think this was part of the reason the very tall Baas couldn’t tolerate her in the end, cheeky, old domestics aren’t attractive, nor pleasure to have around.

My mother’s experience, and by extension ours, was as complex, unique as it was typical. When I started to work for Baas, he was very quick to comment how I reminded him of my mother when she was young. How she “followed instructions”. How she would moan but wouldn’t talk as loudly back. How she cleaned “more thoroughly”, didn’t demand extra pay and was just how they all should be, visible only through the work of their hands. Bust she changed, and he “didn’t know what got into her”.

After my mother recognised certain signs in me she demanded I stop going there. Luckily, I got another weekend and holiday job somewhere else where it was just me and the Madam, and my mother was always with me. She was always clear, no daughter of hers was going to become a fulltime domestic worker. She insisted she would sell anything of hers for me to complete my studies. But I knew she had already sold everything, including her health. So, when she got sick, I was happy for her to stop working and we had to find other ways to make do. By then, she had met a wonderful spirit who became many things to us. This one, we didn’t call her Madam. She was daughter and sister and companion to my mother. She shared with us everything she could. One cannot pretend race, class and history away, but she presented an alternative way. When she moved away my mother could not do the work anymore. She was 14 years old when she began this work. It had marked her life, our perceptions of interpersonal relationships and familial intimacies. She was done, but reckoning with its impacts on her emotional and physical wellbeing was only beginning.

October is the month my mother died 6 years ago. She was 54. A feisty, towering tree of our family. With her around we had a stem on which to anchor ourselves. It is a very heavy month for us her children and her siblings. Last month we performed the big ritual of returning her spirit back home, Simbuyisa. Among other things, my mother was a serious Healer. In my tradition people get called to be healers. I do not know how our ancestors decide who to call. Perhaps it’s a combination of one’s life trials and tribulations and a resilience or purity of spirit despite it all might have something to do with it. So, by tradition we perform these rituals, for the healing of her spirit as well as of those of the living. But it is Pinky, Myrtle who raised my mother from the grave for me, and began the healing of my spirit.

A few months ago, I got introduced to Pinky Mashiane, a domestic worker warrior who is leading the charge for domestic workers to receive the same protections under the law. She fights alongside Myrtle Witbooi, the stalwart of the domestic workers movement in SA and the world over. Myrtle has been everywhere carrying the placard for domestic workers rights. She has led SADSAWU, that neglected “child” of our labour movement for decades, making visible the invisible hands who clean up the proverbial mess in so many of our homes and perform productive labour without which our nation, our economy, would come to a standstill.

This month, Pinky and her sisters, my mother’s comrades and sisters in arms, will hopefully achieve a significant victory at the Constitutional Court. I had not known Pinky much before this. I still do not quite know much of her story. But I know my mother’s story and through it I know Pinky. The story of millions of women in SA and the world over who are domestic workers.

I am blessed with these mothers, these comrades, these warriors who are returning my mother to me, and justice for her beyond the grave. I am inspired by the feminists I organize with who did not hesitate to respond when these workers called. For all these reasons, I support every single demand the Domestic workers are making: Same protection under the law. Decent wages, decent working conditions, compensation for injuries and diseases contracted at work!

And no, domestic workers are not responsible for the crimes that happen in our homes. Yes, when we feel vindicated at an occasional video that goes viral of a supposed domestic worker abusing a child we should be shocked as well as look in the mirror. What do we do every day, in the most intimate spaces where we have total control over them, to recognise and affirm their humanity.

No, its not enough to talk nice about how wonderful Mavis and Violet and Zoliswa are and then send them away with a couple of thousands when they are too old or sickly for us to extract anymore of their labour. We must recognize, respect and remunerate them as legitimate workers. Treat them as human beings with dignity. We have the power of control over their lives while they are in our homes, our offices and workplaces. Our own humanity is measured in the way we treat others in general, particularly those who give to us as much as domestic workers do. Hopefully the courts will speak for them this week.

Hopefully the State will finally be forced to recognize all their rights as workers. We owe them nothing less!

That’s why I support the Domestic Worker’s Rising campaign. You should too.

The campaign was launched on October 15. On the same day a group of domestic workers and allied organisations gathered outside the North Gauteng High Court for the Sylvia Mahlangu hearing. In this case, Maria Mahlangu drowned in March 2012 after falling off a ladder and plunging into her employer’s open swimming pool while cleaning windows.

Her unemployed daughter Sylvia and grandchild, who were dependent on her income, were unable to claim for compensation through available legislation, even though Mahlangu had worked for the same family for 22 years. To get more details about this case and the Domestic Worker’s Rising Campaign follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on @OxfamSA and visit the website to see the different ways you can be involved.

(For more information, check out https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/citypress/20181014/282291026197237 and http://www.seri-sa.org/images/SERI_Domestic_Workers_Rights_Guide_Draft_2_reprint.pdf )

(This originally appeared, in edited form, in the City Press)