A photographic body of work discussing the environmental spaces and relationships between Domestic Workers and Employers in Johannesburg South Africa, by Sydelle Smith
I began the project in June 2007 in a block of flats where my 90 year old Jewish grandmother lives. I befriended a woman , Dolleen, who works for a neighbour of my gran Sybil Shear , on the 6th floor of the building. She allowed me into her life and through her I was able to make contact with a few more women who live in the servants quarters on the seventh floor, working more or less 50 hours a week in one of the lavish flats below.
Whilst living in Scotland last year I worked as a domestic worker/ cleaner for 4 or so months. Growing up in a middle class household in South Africa , we like most, employed a domestic worker. A woman called Florence who worked for my mother for 16 years, and who I have a very special bond with. The relationship has always been a thing of interest to me, coming from the background that I do, and then finding myself on the otherside of the table while living overseas. A relationship with blurred lines in very many instances in a South African context.
Only in the past few years has a Domestic Workers Union of South Africa been formed, and a labour act ammended. The minimum wage for a domestic worker is R1000 a month at more or less 40 hours a week. It is an act that has yet to be fully enforced, with many women earning less than that. The domestic worker industry employs the greatest number of women , compared to other industries. Many of whom spend 11 months of the year working in cities like Johannesburg, for a menial salary, returning back home to rural parts of South Africa only at Christmas time.
Two women who I photographed share part of that story. Dolleen is 54 years old and has been working in the industry since the age of 13. She is a Tswana woman from a small town , Taung, on the outskirts of Kimberely in the Northern Cape. Dolleen is not able to read or write and has been working for Mrs. Shear for the past 9 months. Last year she was diagnosed with acute bowel cancer, for which she has undergone chemotherapy treatment. She is on the mend but must take large dosages of Morphine on a regular basis, which makes her very tired and not able to perform her duties to the fullest of her abilities. Dolleen and her employer do not have a very good relationship, Mrs Shear is an avid smoker who suffers from acute pneumonia. She is planning on moving to an old age home in the near future. Dolleen will have to find another job , probably in the same field, or perhaps she will return to Taung to be with her five grandchildren.
Rebbeca has been working the building for the past 11 years for a Josie Levitas and her husband. She lives with her unemployed husband Joseph in one of the cramped rooms upstairs and cleans the Levitas's penthouse apartment six days a week. Rebbeca is a Pedi woman from Polokwane and has one son who lives in Pietermaritzburg and is currently unemployed. Rebbeca is the sole bread winner in her family, luckily she earns a bit more than the minimum wage. She is happy working for her employers and often told me she feels like part of the family. She is not so pleased however with the accommadation provided upstairs for her busband and her. The room is incredibly small with enough space for a small wardrobe, bed and hotplate. Herself and Dolleen must share toilet facilities with at least 15 other inhabitants of the 7th floor.
My grandmother employs a domestic worker once a week who does not live on the premises. She has given her servants room upstairs to William, a Pedi man who worked for my grandmother and late grandfather in the 80's. William works for a large satellite dish company during the day and exchange for free board prepares my grandmother's dinner and medicine in the evenings. He recieves no form of monetary payment from her, instead surviving on the R500 a week that he gets from his fulltime job. My grandmother is quite a difficult lady , but somehow her and William have always kept a civil semi friendly relationship. William's wife and his children live in Potgietersricht , he sees them at the end of each month.
These are my three subjects at present. I plan to continue researching further meeting people with similiar stories living in similiar situations to build on my body of work. I would like to take the project to another stage of documenting environments by accompanying one of the subjects when they return home for holidays. This is a body of work touching on several topics. The rights of domestic workers in South Africa, the spaces they occupy and the interesting relationships formed between elderly employers and employees, living in the same building in two different worlds.
(Several of the above images were published in the Fall Quarter edition of Camera Austria in 2007. My work was chosen to part of the Forum of Photographs, in this particular issue which is based on the work of photographers from the Market Photo Workshop such as Jodi Bieber, Lolo Veleko and Bonile Bam)