Behind the cold, insensitive cloak”: The plight of domestic workers in South Africa

In an open letter to her former domestic workers, Emmaleen Kriel reflected on the dynamic underpinning her relationship with them. “I cast my mind back over the years when I was a typical white liberal South African ‘madam’…I feel very strongly how thoughtless and selfish I was,” she writes. “Not out of malice towards black people or ‘coloured’ people: no, it was merely in the spirit of the times. It was the norm not to pay your servant more than a given amount…not to employ staff without a ‘pass’…we madams adhered to that law and in so doing left thousands of poor souls out in the cold…”

Kriel writes of the arrogance, the insensitivity, the complacency and coolness which too often dominated  her relationship with her “maids”. “Now that I’m a ‘maid’ myself”, she writes, “…I have become acutely aware of what it must have been like to work for us ‘madams’ and I apologise – for myself and, if I could, for all the other ladies who so eagerly exploited your desperate plight and shielded behind the cold, insensitive cloak of apartheid.”

Though Kriel wrote of a dynamic founded in the context of apartheid, that dynamic has persisted in many South African households today. The domestic worker continues, in many ways, to be the silent, invisible hands which sort, care and clean, unseen and unheard by those for whose benefit she labours.

For South Africa’s middle class, of all races and cultures, glitzy careers are often thought of as “personal achievements”, the glory of individuals. Yet the pursuit of such careers is enabled by the hours of child care, of ironing, of cooking and cleaning and careful attentions, so cheaply bought from those beneath. At the base of South Africa, holding up all the glamour and power of its loftier citizens, stand our domestic workers. Too often, we fail to see, not only their importance, but their very humanity. As Kriel writes, “…worst of all is the complete disregard and disrespect for who you were. The importance of your culture, language, history and the fact that you were often far away from your people. Having you daily in my home, standing right alongside you at the kitchen sink and not knowing nor caring what suffering brought you there.” Too often, we do not see our domestic workers as people, but as the labour they perform…

Under apartheid, white-black power relations served as the basis of the exploitation of domestic workers. Today, additional power relations have entered the equation – including citizen-migrant power relations. Migrant workers, who may often lack the necessary documentation to work in South Africa, have little recourse in the face of abuse or unfair wages. For female migrants who are employed as domestic workers, the situation is often dire. Many times refugees who have fled from human rights violations in their home countries, are compelled as migrants to accept extremely poor working conditions.

Khulumani has witnessed the unfolding of one such refugee’s story. Musa Mthethwa is struggling to attain justice after an unfair dismissal. Her Kensington, Johannesburg employers hired her in February 2016. Early on, cracks began to appear in their façade; having agreed to raise her salary from R2500 to R3500 after six months, they failed to follow through. They also failed to give her time off, and during the first six months of working for them, Musa was allowed only Freedom Day off. The situation deteriorated when Musa found herself dismissed after spending 3 days visiting her ailing husband – days off that she had arranged in advance with her employers.

Musa already had difficulty attaining her asylum papers, which she has been trying to get since July 2015; corruption at Home Affairs offices is rife and refugees often face unfair obstacles in attaining papers necessary to survival in South Africa. Now she is faced with the new, double dilemma of unemployment and trying to get what is owed her. While the CCMA has ruled that her former employers owe her three months’ salary, the employers are not complying.

Nor is it a simple matter of turning to the CCMA for justice; although a hearing has been scheduled for December 8, Musa’s former employers are sending her menacing text messages to prevent her from attending. One former employer is threatening to arrange with Home Affairs officials to arrest and deport Musa from the offices of the CCMA. This is where the corruption and incompetence of Home Affairs offices compounds the plight of economically abused migrants, who are often – like Musa – left in a cold and shadowy realm.

The plight of the migrant and of the menial labourer frequently intersect and intertwine – Musa’s story is only one example.

Despised for their national origins, forced to take on work regarded as “lowly”, these migrant domestic workers are not being treated with the respect due every human being.

In considering the struggles often faced by our domestic workers, can we learn to appreciate and respect the heavy burden borne by them, and the role that they play in making our lives so much easier?

Whether migrant or citizen, they occupy a position at the bottom of South Africa’s economic food chain, and they are deeply undervalued for the contribution they make.

In recognizing this fact, can we, like Emmaleen Kriel, learn to say, “I can never thank you enough for the long suffering help you gave so freely…and I apologise – for myself and, if I could, for all the other ladies [and men] who so eagerly exploited your plight and shielded behind the cold, insensitive cloak” of modern South Africa.


Book authored by Emmaleen Kriel is entitled, Close the Door Softly Behind You.

Emmaleen can be contacted at <


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