Dress, Address and Redress: The Relationships between Female Domestic Workers and their Employers in Cape Town, South Africa

Tanja Bosch, Caitlin McLeod


This study draws on in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews to explore the relationships between black female domestic workers and their white, female employers in Cape Town’s wealthy Southern suburbs through the lens of culture, class, race and gender. The majority of domestic workers in South Africa are black women and formalizing work conditions has been difficult because they work in private households. Despite the birth of democracy with the country’s first non-racial elections in 1994, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies.  The study is particularly concerned with the personal nature of the relationship between the so-called ‘maids’ and ‘madams,’ which is explored via a convenience sample of pairs of employers and employees who were interviewed. The article concludes that there are three categories of relationship: distant, maternal and friendship. These relationship categories are examined in terms of the aesthetic features of the relationship such as dress; the diction employed in verbal interactions, such as how parties address one another; and redress, which involves the manner in which employers attempt to deal with apartheid-wrongs. The article also explores issues related to perceived cultural differences. The study revealed a wide variety in the types of relationships between ‘maids’ and ‘madams’, informed in varying degrees by issues of class race and culture, unique to the South African context. While employers were very conscious of their power and status as ‘madams’, and in some cases consciously sought ways to compensate for the unequal power relationship, the study reveals that domestic work by black women in white households continues to reinforce social constructions of the household as a feminized and racialised space, while distinct power asymmetries reflect ongoing issues of race, class and gender in contemporary South Africa. This kind of racialised domestic labour arrangement thus represents in some ways the last ‘bastion’ of apartheid, with the construction of difference shaped by racial prejudice.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5789/9-2-210


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