Tracing The History Of Domestic Workers Through Literature

Domestic work in South Africa is work that is fraught with racial and class tension. It lies at a unique intersection of the private and political. Domestic workers continue to fight for their rights and dignity even with supposed increased legislation and laws to protect them. Using literature, Ena Jansen attempts to look at this in her book, Like Family

From her title, Jansen attempts to show where this tension lies. Like Family shows that while the domestic workers work and often live with their employees for long periods of time, they will never become a true part of the family. 

Jansen’s book starts off with the figure of Eva Krotoa. Krotoa – she was known as Eva to the Dutch and English settlers was taken to work as a servant by Jan van Riebeeck. As her command of the Dutch language grew, Krotoa interpreted between her people, the Khoi and the Dutch colonisers. 

According to South African History Online, she was the only figure in the 1650s who possessed both the intimate knowledge of both Khoikhoi and Dutch culture. She threaded the fine balance of both society, swapping her clothes and cultural aesthetics as she navigated between each world. From Krotoa, Jansen shows how from 1658 to the present, domestic workers have and continue to navigate these worlds. 

Jansen’s inaugural lecture she gave was on the representation of Krotoa. While researching for that topic this was a topic she could spend the rest of her research life on.

“You get such diverse stories coming up. It was just a very intriguing topic to me,” said Jansen. 

Krotoa was a link between the settlers and the local people, between white and black, and urban and rural. She says “It’s that in-between position which fascinates me.” 

The 2019 release of Like Family is the third release of the book. Jansen previously released an Afrikaans and Dutch version of the book before writing the English version. Each version differs, primarily with the literary examples which are used. The Afrikaans version has won an award from the University of Johannesburg for Best Creative work for a non-fiction book.

Jansen says when she wrote the English version she realised she “could have written in English from the beginning.” However, as Jansen is Afrikaans she says she “knew [she] wanted to write it in Afrikaans first.” While writing the English version, Jansen says she reworked some of the Afrikaans examples and figures, replacing them with English ones to appeal to a more diverse audience – both internationally and locally. 

Writing this book, Jansen hopes people will read and think differently about their own positionality. She says while there have not been many reviews of the English book out yet, one so far stood out for her. 

“At a conference in Stellenbosch, Thuli Madonsela mentioned the book and said if there was a way for white people to engage with the complexities of South Africa, this is the way it should be done,” Jansen said, adding that she was very flattered to hear that. 

For Jansen the story of domestic workers tells “a story that all South Africans are a part of. She says through her book she wants to take readers from different parts of society on a journey of what she “considers a biography of sorts of domestic workers.”  

Each chapter of the book is titled after a domestic worker either from literature or from an oral history account. It also starts with different quotes regarding domestic workers. This shows an attempt by Jansen to completely center the histories and narratives of domestic workers themselves in her book. 

In the middle of the book, there are beautiful artworks and photographers from artists around South Africa which pictorially narrate the history of domestic work. Jansen says she chose all of the carefully to complement her written work. 

The book is also not just meant to be a literary telling of the history of domestic workers. Janse hopes the important issues raised in the book will play a role in creating further debates. 

“I don’t know whether my book will change things but it can add to arguments. It’s a perspective of how deeply rooted domestic work is in South Africa,” she says. In the discussion Jansen admits that “in spite of laws, there is high walls, a front door and one-on-one relationships so the main relationship remains between two people which is very difficult to judge from the outside.” 

The book is thought-provoking and while no one book can ever claim to tell a complete story especially one an issue so fraught with tension, Like Family is a start. 

As for why people should read the book Jansen says it’s because it tells the story of “the most essential relationship which showed how South African developed the way it and why it is [still] so unequal.”

This book is published by Wits Press and is available through their website. 

Featured image by Nathi Ngubane. All other images provided by Corina van der Spoel.