Like family, yet never

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On Wednesday 22 May Ena Jansen’s book Like family was launched at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.  The book deals with the contact zone between the domestic worker and the family she works for. Jansen chose to share the stage with Sindiwe Magona and Myrtle Witbooi.

Magona and Witbooi had been domestic workers once. Both are proud of the domestic work they had done and have proudly moved on.

Magona is a published author of many books. She also is a recognised actor, has earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work and has received an Honorary Doctorate from Hartwick College in the USA.

Witbooi is the general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and she serves as the first president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Witbooi has had a hand in the publication of Domestic Workers of World Unite: A Global Movement for Dignity and Human Rights by Jennifer N. Fish (NYU Press). The book aims to help readers to better understand the global domestic-workers movement.

Jansen used to hold the chair of Afrikaans literature at the University of Amsterdam. For her inaugural lecture she researched the life of Krotoa, the woman who was a domestic worker in the Van Riebeeck household in the founding years of the Cape. Krotoa also acted as an interpreter for the Dutch East Indian Company. While working on Krotoa’s history, Jansen realised that domestic workers to this day act as interpreters between the moneyed classes and the working classes. That was how this book was born.

Sharing the stage with Magona and Witbooi meant politicising the event. It was not a mere book launch, much rather it became a discussion of how best employers could help their domestic to improve her own life?

So often the domestic workers are close to the employers, like family, but they do not have their futures planned and discussed as one would do with family.

Magona and Witbooi agreed that they had dearly loved the families they had worked for, especially the children in their care, but neither could become, or feel like, family in the truest sense of the word.

Jansen shows that domestic-worker relations in South Africa have been shaped by the institution of slavery at the Cape. In the book she examines the representation of domestic workers in a diverse range of literary texts in English and Afrikaans. Authors, from whom she has quoted, include André Brink, J.M Coetzee, Imraan Coovadia, Nadine Gordimer, Elsa Joubert, Antjie Krog, Sindiwe Magona, Kopano Matlwa, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sisonke Msimang, Zukiswa Wanner and Zoë Wicomb.

Like Family is an updated version of the award-winning Afrikaans book Soos familie published in 2015 and the highly-acclaimed 2016 Dutch translation, Bijna familie.

Like family is published by Wits University Press. The ISBN is 9781776143511. Copies are on sale in the Book Lounge and other good bookstores.

Pictures and text: Izak de Vries

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  • Thank you for this report. I was unfortunately unable to attend but I have the book. What a brilliant job Jansen has done in analyzing the history and exposing the conditions of domestic work.

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