black women's work

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.

first published for the blog:


Anonymous said…

Yo- what a relevant and accurate article! Speaks to something I noted as a student and also wrote something about my privilege in relation to that of other Black/coloured/indian women.

There's so much poverty in grahamstown that people who are well off think just came out of the people's heads or their 'lifestyles'. And these well off people love this poverty because it makes their own lives meaningful, they see objects of pity everywhere to 'uplift' and 'develop'.

Yo I hate that in Grahamstown, this horrible paternalism and the people who are on the receiving end of that 'let's uplift them' are usually these women or their children.

I find it so offensive when I see or observe people in Grahamstown particularly charity-types looking at black women as objects of pity as though they have moral, spiritual or mental deficits. Like they are poor because they 'think poor' or they are poor because they don't 'work hard' or god knows because they pray to the wrong god.

(although god has somehow managed to provide plenty for hypocritical types who support white-minority rule whilst praying to Jesus...)

Every black woman who seeks a job here and a job there, sells a little this and a little that reminds me of my grandmothers, one who is a peasant but raised 8 amazing children and raised me too, personally. and i am curious and interested in things because she brought me up, 'illiterate' that she was.

the other used to go to town to find cabbage leave cast offs to feed her children, one of whom became one of the most powerful leaders in this country.

So I get annoyed at people who think black women who hustle are to be pitied or are 'begging' or 'we should be wary not to make them dependent'.

f*ck iyangibulala leyonto leyo.

Most people in Grahamstown are from the surrounding farms or are the children of those who left the farms. They were either evicted or left to try and find better opportunities in town.

But obviously there are few industries in Grahamstown so finding work in town is hard, and its not actually yet 20years of democracy, and life is increasingly hard for those on the economic margins.

Towns like Grahamstown and Cradock have been stuck in economic ruts for close on 180 years. They had their heyday back in the way way, since then, lots of white people even have left these small towns. Grahamstown is lucky because of Rhodes, courts, army and schools.

In other words, what Detroit has gone through in the past two decades, Grahamstown went through close to a century and half ago... economic stagnation and decline...

But these towns are always forever catching the various waves of people coming off the farms

some adapt to town economy and thrive, most dont...

Once I started to see that Grahamstown was a 'final destination' for most of the farm families... then you kinda get a sense for the economic strain that it has to bear... its basically having to solve the problem of two hundred year impoverishment and it just can't do that easily....

I mean - we don't see many students sticking around in Grahamstown making successful businesses or getting great jobs - coz there are fewer opportunities here than elsewhere... why would it be any different for the unskilled, etc etc
Anonymous said…

oh - I don't believe that there are NO opportunities in Grahamstown.. in case it seems that way...

I also believe there are opportunities in Grahamstown that can be activated because of its unique Geography ....

And as time goes on, I think a new 'creative class' must fight to take this town in a better direction... and I can already see the makings of that new creative class on all sides of town...

but it is a class of people who already have a certain level of skill, networks, and financial 'stability'.... and are happy to take risks in a small place...

these people are contributing immensely....

unlike the landlords of this town who are just leeches that stifling the housing market for entry-level and middle-income people that are usually the creative people needed to support economies!!

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