Black Women’s Work

By Athambile Masola

If you live on the right side of town and have the right kind of employment or are fortunate enough to be a student, living in Rhini-Grahamstown has its perks in spite of the scorn it suffers because it’s so small: everything is in walking distance, there’s endless access to the internet and I personally enjoy being able to sit under a tree at the Bot gardens reading and feeling like I’m adding value to the world because being a Masters student means reading endlessly!

But if you’re not in a privileged position in Rhini and you’re a black woman, life does not seem so blissful. With an unemployment rate over 80%, the inequalities are tangible in Rhini, it’s not something I read in a book. I am often declining offers from women who are offering to come clean my flat as domestic workers for a pittance so they can support their families. These women spent their days moving from digs to digs cleaning for students who can afford to pay them what they spend on airtime on a daily basis perhaps. I have been approached countless times by women offering to accept any items of clothing or household things that I no longer use so they can sell or re-use in their own homes. I am often asked to assist at the ATM because many women cannot read and operate the machines themselves. And on a daily basis I have to ward off sexual harassment from men who whistle at my “sexiness” the same way they whistle at a dog.

The idea of work for many women in places like Grahamstown means settling for pittance in order to support a family. Whenever I’m in town around 5pm I cannot help but notice the streams of women pouring down New Street and High Street going home after working in the suburban homes. I have no stats on this but the majority of women who work in Rhini are domestic workers and service staff at Rhodes University. The point is though, they are working right? But the truth is what kind of choice did they have in landing up with this kind of occupation? A friend I met while she was in high school dropped out of school because she could no longer feign that she could not read and write and is now  domestic worker; she’s younger than me and already has a daughter. And I’m sure she is not the only one.

My attempt is not to be emotional about this, but we often hear talk about getting more women to become CEOs and engineers and I do not doubt that is important, but some black women in obscure places like Paterson and Rhini do not have the opportunity to get a matric (in spite of Rhini being dubbed an education town). Those who do get a matric often cannot make it to university or an FET college, but if there is money, they will go to GADRA education and improve their marks in order to be able to consider an FET college, university is often out of the question. I have racialised this issue purposefully because we can’t talk about women’s rights without talking about race, class and sexuality. And talking about women’s work in South Africa almost 20 years after a democracy means accepting that many women have been let down by a government whose education system engineers a working class further exacerbating the inequalities for women in this country. I don’t have all the answers, this is just an observation at the resilience many women have in the face of disappointment and dashed dreams.


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