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Domestics in South Africa

Each day before dawn thousands of women in townships across South Africa walk to bus stops and travel the distance enormous not only in terms of miles but culturally and spiritually, too -- from their homes in the townships to the white suburbs. The mostly black townships are places of extreme hardship, crime and violence. The pristine, predominantly white suburbs are landscaped, and protected with high fences, entry gates with guards, and roving security teams. The women who travel here each day are domestic workers, formerly known as maids. The women clean, cook, iron, and care for children for 90-100 rand a day, roughly $3400 a year. Up to of this is spent on transportation. The median income of the households that employ them is $22,000 a year, approximately six times more.
I am a white American woman. It shames me to say that I was able to photograph these women simply by contacting their employers. Of the twenty employers I contacted, only two asked their domestic workers if they would agree to be photographed by methe rest simply informed them that I would be doing so.
Speaking with a woman named Rachel, who had worked for years as a domestic, I learned that during apartheid, she was expected to eat the meat bought for her employers dogs, and that this was common practice. Many domestics were not allowed to eat from the same plates as their employers. Employers could beat them, rape them with no consequences. Now, more than a decade after the end of apartheid, the situation is improved in many respects, yet salaries remain untenable. During apartheid, women from the townships had no choice but to work as maids. Now there are other opportunities available for educated women of color. Yet domestic work continues to be one of the few options for those with less education.
Tembi works for Juliet, who is in remission from cancer. Juliets children love Tembi; she is a member of the family, having raised the kids from infancy. Juliet told me that Tembi has been an invaluable support and friend to her through her sickness. The relationship that these two women have forged seems to go beyond employer and employee. It seems to be one of mutual respect, gratitude, and even love. This kind of bond is the exception to the rule.
Employers felt comfortable confiding in me about their friends domestics --shes not too be trusted, or so and so has an attitude, or shes lazy, as if I, by virtue of being white, would be sympathetic to their criticism and understand the troubles one could have with help.

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