Living on the edge

Domestic workers are an essential -- and versatile -- part of South Africa’s labour force. They cook, clean, babysit, act as security, occasionally as drivers, caretakers, do the laundry, walk the dogs and house sit. There are 53 million domestic workers worldwide, which is almost the size of the South African population, according to the International Labour 


Myrtle Witbooi - General Secretary of the South African Domestic Workers Union

We followed the stories of three domestic workers in the Western Cape. The videos, text and graphs aim to encourage dialogue between domestic workers and employers, and to stress the validity and importance in seeing this significant part of our labour force as individuals with varying needs, and personal aspirations. This calculator is not an end-point, but rather aspires to trigger discussion on a topic often neglected and undervalued.


6.8% of the employed SA population are domestic workers

Worldwide, there are 53 million domestic workers

Domestic work in South Africa has its roots firmly embedded in a history of colonial oppression, racial segregation and exclusion of domestic workers from legal protection.

Exploited, Undervalued - And Essential: Domestic Workers and the Realisation of their Rights -- Darcy du Toit, academic and researcher, University of the Western Cape

Primrose gets by on R4,000 a month for her family, and still puts aside money for her son's University education. See her story next.


Kim Harrisberg
Primrose gets by on R4,000 a month for her family, and still puts aside money for her son's University education. See her story next
Living on the Edge

Primrose lives in ward 94 in Khayelitsha


Primrose's household income of R48,000 a year is in line with her neighbours, according to the 2011 Census data


Thirteen percent of Primrose's neighbours also work in private households


Kim Harrisberg
"This is such a big thing to me. I have always wanted my children to have a better education than I did. I got my matric, but then had to give up furthering my education for them. I gave up my life for them."
Education First

"Things didn't work out", says Primrose about her marriage, and since then she has been the breadwinner for her children, and now her granddaughter too. She paid for her daughter's tertiary education but she got sick and could not complete it. She is now living in her family’s hometown in the Transkei with other family members.

Now, Primrose sets money aside each month for her son's living expenses and education. It is her biggest expense.

"He is studying to be a lawyer through UNISA," says Primrose. "Sometimes he might need smart clothes, or a suit, so I need to have money to help him with those things."

She sets aside R1,000 a month for her son’s expenses and also saves intermittently to pay for his UNISA fees of R10,000 a year.

Primrose is part of the 71% of domestic workers who are the sole providers of income in their households. (Source: National Income Dynamics Survey, UCT).

Justine's Story
Fled on the back of a truck

Justine places a bowl of cooked cassava leaves alongside the fish and ugali (similar to South African pap, or maize meal) on her small dining room table. Her youngest daughter Grace (2) climbs onto on her lap, and Abigail (7) sits next to her, reaching across the table for another piece of fish. Her sister-in-law and husband roll the ugali between their fingers for easier eating. “We can find Congolese food in town,” says her husband, Clement. “We miss our home food too much otherwise."

In her apartment in Kuils River, a largely Afrikaans suburb east of Cape Town, Justine and her family share the space with another family. “We pay for our room, and for the use of the living room.” Members of the other family trickle through the front door, head to their room, closing the door quietly behind them. “It is too expensive otherwise,” says Justine.

Justine fled the Democratic Republic of Congo eight years ago in the back of a truck. Warfare had spread through her home, and she had witnessed the murder and displacement of her closest family members. She spent the first four years raising her daughter, looking for work, and fighting for her refugee status. She eventually found work as a domestic worker. Through her employer, she was put in touch with a handful of new employers for whom she now works during the week.

For Justine, her biggest priority is the safety, education and happiness of her children. "Sometime they might want to eat at Hungry Lion, or somewhere different, but how can we? There is no money at the end of each month. There is no money to save."

Occasionally, there is a crisis, and then careful monetary planning goes out the window. "My youngest one, Grace, pulled a cup of hot tea from the table. She burnt her neck and her face. We had to take her straight to the hospital." Luckily, Grace has healed well and the only memory of the incident is fading, keloid scar across her neck. "Now she is afraid to even drink tea," says Justine.

Of her salary of R2,400, almost 63% is spent on groceries, 22% on transport for both her and her children, and 8% on nappies for Grace.

Although the rent takes almost all of her husband's salary, Justine and Clement say they feel safer here than in a township, where threats and rumours of xenophobia hang heavily over the heads of foreigners.

Justine's Story
Kim Harrisberg
“They say I do not know the name of the road where I lived in the DRC. But it is not like South Africa,” she says, “we do not have road signs or road names. I could not even speak good English when I first arrived here and they asked me these questions.”
A Foreigner in a Foreign Place

For Justine, living as a foreigner in a largely xenophobic environment, she carries both a social and a professional burden. “I have been struggling to get papers in South Africa, but am I still trying. Where can I go if I cannot stay here? I have no more family in the DRC.”

She is currently appealing a rejection by the Refugee Court of Appeal for factual inconsistencies in her testimony. “They say I do not know the name of the road where I lived in the DRC. But it is not like South Africa,” she says, “we do not have road signs or road names in some areas. I could not even speak good English when I first arrived here and they asked me these questions I could not understand.”

Justine and Clement face a barrage of poor logistical management common to asylum seekers entering the country. Research conducted by the African Centre for Migration and Society revealed that three quarters of 1,400 interviewed asylum applicants reported that “what was written in their status determination decisions did not adequately reflect the information they provided during the interview”. More than half were unaware of how to appeal the decision of the Refugee Reception Office.

Justine is among the half aware of her right to appeal, and now waits in limbo in the hope of being granted her refugee status.

Her children, in the interim, have learnt to adapt to their environment too. “Aunty, aunty, come look at my book,” says Abigail, a heavy Afrikaans accent audible in her tone and choice of words. Attending an Afrikaans nursery school means Abigail’s accent does not carry the same French intonation of her parent’s accents.

In fact, she is able to speak English, Afrikaans, KiSwahili, English, and even a bit of isiXhosa already.

“I want my children to be educated,” says Justine. “But sometimes I do not have espérer, I do not have hope.”

Kim Harrisberg
Nonsipho's Story

Nosiphiwo walks barefoot between the corrugated iron shacks of Gugulethu. She is adorned with blue and white beaded anklets, bracelets and a long, dangling necklace. The remnant of white paint is seen around her eyes. “I was at a ceremony last night,” she says. “I have not even slept yet.” She is only 27-years-old, but has carried the “blessing and burden” of being a sangoma for the last three years.

“I was a domestic worker before,” says Nosiphiwo upon reaching her shack. She sits down in one of two patched chairs, as her younger siblings gather around to listen to what she is saying. “But my identity book was stolen, and then I could not work anymore.”

Nosiphiwo’s mother is a domestic worker and both her and her step-father are sangomas too. On the day of the interview her mother was at a traditional ceremony.

“I am the oldest of seven children, so I try to bring in some money from donations for my work as a sangoma. My step-father and mother do the same, and we also rely on social grants,” says Nosiphiwo.

"As a domestic worker, my mother is paid around R2,000 for working six days a week," says Nosiphowo. "She wants to quit, but where can she find better work? Her employer does not treat her well. Sometimes she can even hold back her salary if she does not feel like paying her."

When Nosiphiwo reflects on her own past salary as a domestic worker, she speaks about how over 43% of her daily payment went to transport and how she could travel for up to three hours to get to work on time.

Living on R625 a month

With 21,005 people crowded into a small area, unemployment is rife, which results in a low household and individual income.

Nonsipho's Story
Kim Harrisberg
“It is difficult to be a sangoma at a young age, and to need to find work. I did not ask for this, my ancestors came to me and I had no choice.”
Family First

"I need to support my siblings. It is hard for them. My sister is in matric now, she needs stationery and books." Nosiphiwo did not finish her matric, but her 18-year-old sister wants to be a doctor when she finishes studying. She cleans the floor of the shack with muddied water in an attempt to keep the space clean for her family.

When Nosiphiwo was still working as a domestic worker, 16.8% of her R1,920 monthly salary was spent on food for her family, 12% was spent on toiletries for herself, and she would spend over 20% on stationery for her siblings.

"Now we get our money from different places each month, but it is a struggle." Nosiphiwo points to a the electrical box on the wall of the shack. A button is missing and she toys with the empty space with her finger. "You see this? We need this fixed. Like so many things here, we need this fixed."


Kim Harrisberg
Do you page a fair wage to your domestic worker? Use our tool to check
Kim Harrisberg
The struggle for a fair living wage
Powered by  Jumpstart Georgia