Opinion

Myrtle Witbooi, Who Fought for Domestic Workers’ Rights, Dies at 75

Myrtle Witbooi, a South African labor activist who campaigned successfully for the country’s first union for domestic workers and once chained herself to the gates of Parliament in Cape Town to press demands for their betterment, died on Jan. 16 in Cape Town. She was 75.

Her biographer, Jennifer N. Fish, said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Witbooi led domestic workers in the struggle against apartheid and continued to press for wage parity and employment rights for her followers after South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.

A former domestic servant, she had experienced the inequities of servitude firsthand, and she propelled herself to prominence by speaking out against them.

In 1971 she wrote a letter of protest to the Cape Town newspaper The Clarion to ask “Why are we different, why are there no laws, why are we not seen as people?,” she told ‌Dr. Fish, a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in a conversation in 2018. .

Ms. Witbooi became a domestic servant in Cape Town at the age of 17 and launched her campaign a few years later. After her letter was published, the newspaper set up a meeting of domestic workers and invited her to address it. More than 300 people turned up, she said in an interview in 2019.

“I went up to the stage,” she recalled, “and I said: ‘Good evening, I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves, because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said ‘You are going to lead us.’”

Ms. Witbooi and her fellow activist Florence de Villiers founded the South African Domestic Workers Union, the country’s first labor organization for domestic workers, in the mid-1980s. In the post-apartheid era, she was a leader of its successor, the South African Domestic and Allied Workers Union.

In 2013, she was elected president of the newly created International Domestic Workers Federation, which calls itself “the first and only global union federation led by women.” She remained its president until her death.

Ms. Witbooi’s activism straddled South Africa’s transition from racist pariah to the so-called rainbow nation it became in 1994 after the election of Nelson Mandela as president.

Even in the early 2000s, domestic workers in South Africa did not qualify for short-term unemployment benefits.

So “five domestic workers, myself included, we chained ourselves to the gate of the government,” Ms. Witbooi recalled in an interview last year, referring to the Parliament building in Cape Town. “The next day they called us in to talk.”

As a result, domestic workers won significant improvements in their terms of employment.

“It wasn’t something that the government gave to domestic workers,” she said. “It was domestic workers themselves that have fought for this.”

Ms. Witbooi harbored a grievance against the very organizations that claimed victory in the fight against apartheid, including the still-dominant African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

“Nobody, not even those organizations, ever thought of the domestic workers,” she was quoted as saying in 2018. “We were never on anyone’s agenda. There was never anybody that used to speak for us. We were simply some just forgotten women that was working for something. We had no voice.”

Ms. Witbooi in 2022. “We need to do something for ourselves,” she told her fellow domestic workers, “because nobody is going to do anything for us.”Credit…via Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

Ms. Witbooi’s experience seemed to illustrate both the broad-brush oppression and the finer shadings of daily life under apartheid. She was of mixed race, a category that the apartheid government classified as “colored” and subjected to residential and social restrictions.

That presented challenges to Ms. Witbooi and her followers, since Black and colored people were not permitted to gather in large groups except for sporting and religious events. So, she said, she and her fellow activists used church gatherings as a cover for their meetings.

She worked for the same family for 12 years. In some interviews, she spoke of working grindingly long hours and — like many domestic workers — being obliged by residency laws to live apart from her husband and children. But she also noted that her employers offered her the use of their garage for meetings.

The plight of domestic workers, mainly women, was woven into the very fabric of the apartheid state and was emblematic of the dependencies, fears and resentments at one of the few points of domestic racial contact.

Servants with the residence permits required by apartheid law lived in separate small rooms often located behind their employers’ homes in whites-only areas, while others commuted from segregated townships on segregated buses and trains to work in their employers’ homes.

Servants’ quarters were routinely raided by police officers enforcing the residency laws, frequently late at night, which deepened the servants’ sense of vulnerability.

At work, a domestic servant might be expected to cook and clean, while tending her employer’s children, making the beds and washing the clothes. It was not uncommon to see a Black servant doing the housework with her employer’s child swathed in a blanket, asleep on her back, while her relatives looked after her own children in a segregated township.

There were some shadings, though. A domestic job was one of few available to Black women. A home in someone’s yard, however cramped, was a coveted asset. Yet wages were notoriously low — sometimes paid partly in limited food rations — and lagged well behind national levels. Such was some white people’s mistrust of servants that they kept locks on their pantry doors.

“The institution of domestic service itself constitutes apartheid’s Deep South,” Jacklyn Cock, a sociologist, wrote in “Maids and Madams,” a study published in 1980. “It is the crudest, and most hidden, expression of inequality in this society.”

Only in 2002 did the government introduce a minimum wage for domestic workers. The current minimum is the equivalent of $1.34 per hour but is often undercut, particularly for migrant workers from other African states.

Myrtle Michels was born on Aug. 31, 1947, in the small town of Genadendal, east of Cape Town, the location of one of South Africa’s oldest Christian mission stations. Her mother, Maria, was a cook, and her father, Johannes, was a carpenter.

She married Cedric Francois Witbooi, an electrical technician, in 1973. Their marriage broke up in the 1980s, she said, because of her time-consuming work as a union shop steward in a factory after she left domestic employment. Mr. Witbooi died around 20 years ago, according to Dr. Fish.

Ms. Witbooi is survived by three children, Jacqui Michels, Linda Johnson and Peter Witbooi, and three grandchildren.

The most difficult part of her job, she once said, was the strain on her family.

“What makes us hurt is being separated from our children,” she said. “It is also like you feel that you don’t belong anywhere, even amongst your own people.”

At times, her union work was hampered by financial and organizational challenges. The South African Domestic Workers Union dissolved in 1996, succumbing to “financial difficulties and disagreements among the leadership,” Debbie Budlender, an author and researcher at the University of Cape Town, wrote in a paper for the International Labor Office in Geneva in 2016.

Ms. Witbooi frequently took part in marches and demonstrations, waving placards calling for domestic workers’ rights. She had, she said, been arrested along with such anti-apartheid figures as the Rev. Allan Boesak and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

“For me,” she once said, “if you can get through being a domestic worker in the apartheid era, which was bad, you can do anything.”

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