American University
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Domestic workers and democratization: Challenging the limits of transformation in the new South Africa

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posted on 2023-09-06, 03:08 authored by Jennifer Natalie Fish

This dissertation examines the relationship between South Africa's national transition to democracy and the gendered institution of paid domestic labor. While South Africa's outward post-apartheid transformation remains remarkable, the extent to which social inequality dominates the modern nation presents serious challenges to the actualization of its public victories. This dissertation asserts that the encapsulation of this discontinuity between democracy and severe inequality persists most strikingly in the institution of paid domestic labor. Because it remains the largest and most heavily exploited sector of employment for women in South Africa, domestic work affords a critical lens to analyze social change in the modern democracy. Embracing a feminist methodological approach to understanding the meaning of this institution in the New South Africa, I draw upon 85 in-depth interviews and participatory organizational observations that emerged from nine months of fieldwork in Cape Town, South Africa. Findings from this study reveal how the institution of domestic work maintains the dominant gendered, racialized, class-based social stratification system embedded in the apartheid era. Furthermore, this research centrally asserts that through their daily household labor, domestic workers assuage the tension of national transition by sustaining social relations constructed during apartheid. Therefore, a great deal is allowed to go unchanged in the new nation. Drawing upon community-based methodologies, the data also demonstrate critical examples of social change. Primarily, women's collective agency to transform the institution of domestic work resulted in tangible social policy reform during this study. Second, employers of domestic workers now include "newly elite" economically privileged sectors of formerly disadvantaged racial groups. Examining the intersectional relationships within marginalized communities provides an original analysis of both domestic work and South Africa's particular process of social change. By focusing on the experiences of South African women, the relationship between gender and democracy reveals the ongoing challenge of realizing congruence between social change at the public level and transformation in the everyday lives of those most severely marginalized. This dissertation asserts that changing the deeply engrained, highly normalized, severely unequal institution of domestic work is essential to actualizing the enormous public victories of South Africa's new democracy.







Thesis (Ph.D.)--American University, 2003.


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