Communicating Legacies: History of Domestic Work in South Africa

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Sarah Elizabeth Jones traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to complete research for her thesis and Newcomb Scholars project. During this trip, Sarah examined in-depth the impact of minimum wage laws on domestic workers. Sarah is a senior majoring in Political Economy and Africana Studies.


Before leaving for my recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, my peers did not understand why I wanted to pursue research abroad over winter break and did not know how I would tackle a research project by myself within a limited amount of time. Prior to my departure, I created a finalized research plan, reviewed the sites where notable scholars conducted research, and reminded myself that I was pursuing a significant research subject. Despite the nervous energy I received from friends and family, I attempted to go into the experience with confidence.

During the Spring of 2019, I had the opportunity to start my research for my thesis as an independent study while studying abroad at the University of Cape Town. With the assistance of the Taylor Changemaker Award, I returned to Cape Town for two weeks to complete research for my thesis. For this trip to Cape Town, I wanted to obtain Parliamentary committee meeting minutes concerning Sectoral Determination 7 and explore the local archives, museums, and libraries that store the country’s political and social history related to domestic work. Prior to the trip, I started correspondence in September with Mr. Llewellynn Claassen, the Clerk of Papers at the Cape Town Parliament Office. Due to the structure and archival process of the committee, Mr. Claassen admitted that it would be difficult to gain access to the minutes, but strongly encouraged me to continue pursuing my research.

In Cape Town, I started my research by viewing Mary Sibande’s The Reign sculpture at the South African National Gallery. The sculpture illustrates the legacy of domestic work that is still intertwined with present-day political and social influences. Next, I met with Mr. Claassen. While searching for the minutes, Mr. Claassen shared his involvement with labor movements and explained the function of sectorial determinations in formalized work sectors. After our meeting, I started my in-depth research in the archives and at museums. While in Cape Town, I visited the Western Cape Archives, the National Library of South Africa, Iziko Social History Centre, and the Iziko Slave Lodge museum. At these sites, the information I discovered how the history of domestic work has allowed colonialism to transcend through centuries.

Before I left, I met with one of the lead organizers of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, Myrtle Witbooi. My meeting with Ms. Witbooi tied together several themes that I encountered during my research. Ms. Witbooi emphasized the shortcomings of Sectorial Determination 7 and how the resistance of South African domestic workers has catalyzed international movements for domestic workers.

Although this was a difficult research project to tackle, it was an eye-opening experience that will influence how I conduct future research. Because of this experience, I learned that research does not occur in isolation, but requires a network of people who can contribute various stories and perspectives. Despite the magnitude of literature available on domestic work, building personal connections with people who work in the sector and constantly advocate for its transformation provide exposure to both the current progress and difficulties many workers experience.