S. Africa's rich, white liberal Democrats wooing household servants as voters Powerless domestics on verge of gaining political muscle

January 31, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In this country of rigi categories, the Democratic Party has been known as the party of rich, white liberals, referred to here as the "mink and manure set."

But times are changing as South Africa moves toward a new political era and toward democratic elections. The ever-present servants, people with no rights and no power who live in back rooms behind the main house, are about to join the ranks of the nation's voters.

Like everything else in these days of transition, this requires an adjustment, and the opposition Democratic Party is not shrinking from the task.

It is campaigning to transform itself from the party of "madams," as the ladies of the manor are called, to the party of madams and maids.

"I think they are potential membership," says Claire Quail, a white City Council member who belongs to the Democratic Party. "Ordinary people want peace and stability. They don't want violence, and they don't see it stopping with the ANC," she says, referring to the African National Congress.

With that in mind, the member of Parliament from Houghton, one of the most posh districts in town, called a meeting for household servants.

"Important meeting for domestic workers," announced the posters around Norwood Primary School, where the gathering was held. "At this meeting, you will hear: 1. How to use your vote in the new election. 2. Your rights and duties as domestic workers contained in new laws. 3. What peace, freedom and democracy will mean."

There are an estimated 1.4 million domestic workers in South Africa, 8,000 of them in Houghton. Meeting organizers said they expected about 200 to respond to their posters and ads. At least 2,000 came.

A few arrived in their ubiquitous pink maid's uniforms, suggesting they had made a mad -- after washing the Saturday lunch dishes.

Most came in street clothes, their heads covered with the dark woolen berets that working-class black women here find stylish.

But they came with a different agenda.

"I thought they would tell us about better wages, not about voting," said Susan Kekana, a 50-year-old mother of five who has worked as a maid for 16 years. "If I vote, I'm voting for a black. I didn't go to school, but I'm not stupid. We're not going to vote for white people."

Mrs. Kekana and others wanted to learn about their rights as domestic workers and their chances of getting more money under new bills to be introduced in Parliament this year.

Domestic workers are among the most exploited workers in South Africa today because, unlike miners or factory workers, they have no strong union to represent them and to pressure their employers.

The South African Domestic Workers Union, one of two unions with a combined membership of only 20,000 domestics, says the average monthly salary for maids is 200 rands, $70. Full-time maids usually get meals and a room, but living on the premises also means they can be called upon to work any time -- day or night.

"It's painful to work so hard for nothing," said Sarah Ndebele, who said she began working as a maid three years ago after the electronics factory where she worked shut down.

"I think everyone came today because they want to hear if there are going to be any changes."

There is no minimum wage for domestic workers, although the union has recommended 450 rands a month. There are no laws covering hours or working conditions either. It is all at the employer's discretion.

The new law is not expected to deal with salaries or overtime. But in line with recommendations by a national manpower commission, it is expected to set maximum weekly hours and terms for terminating employment -- providing basic protections that other workers have had for years.

"Domestic workers have had no rights, and they're very conscious of this," said Cecil Bass, another City Council member who helped organize the Democratic Party meeting.

"We heard from many employers who thought this was a good idea," he said, noting that Houghton is perhaps the most liberal district in the country. "But some said we're inciting their workers and pushing up wages. If some people are uptight about it, too bad."

Tony Leon, Houghton's member of Parliament, explained terms of the new legislation to the assembly of black, mostly female, workers, drawing bursts of applause.

Afterward he said in an interview, "If you want people to vote for the DP, you must make sure the DP knows their concerns."

As of now, the DP is in constant competition with the right-wing Conservative Party for the position of No. 2 among white voters.

The Democratic Party does not expect to grow into power. The serious power struggle is between Nelson Mandela's ANC and President F. W. de Klerk's National Party. But with an element of black support, the DP could remain relevant as the nation moves from all-white to all-race politics.

Lena Maatha, a domestic worker since 1963, sounded a warning note that the ANC should not take their support for granted. "If the ANC doesn't help, we're going to turn this way," she said, referring to the Democratic Party. "You vote for someone you think wants to help you."

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