On The Bookshelf: Like Family


We chat to Ena Jansen about her book Like Family – an English (and updated) version of her award-winning Afrikaans book Soos Familie. 

There are over than a million black women employed as domestic workers in South Africa. In her book, Ena Jansen looks at the central place these nannies, housekeepers and chars continue to occupy in post-apartheid society.

Tell us more about Like Family.

The book is the result of my research into the contact zone of domestic service, an intimate space where different classes meet. A million black South African women do this work, and Zimbabwean women too.

They are precariously situated between privilege and poverty. “Like family”, is how they are often described, but both they and the families they serve know they can never be real family.

Some chapters deal with the impact of slavery and the migration of rural women to cities. Others deal with stories about domestic workers with regards to children, to sexuality, their roles during and after apartheid.

I discuss texts by authors such as Ingrid Winterbach, Zoë Wicomb, Zukiswa Wanner, Sisonke Msimang, Es’kia Mphahlele, Zakes Mda, Sindiwe Magona, Antjie Krog, Imraan Coovadia and J.M. Coetzee.

Where did the idea come from?

My inaugural lecture in Amsterdam back in 2003 was about representations of Krotoa, the first nanny to a European family who became Jan Van Riebeeck’s interpreter between Dutch settlers and the local community.

I realised that domestic workers are similar go-betweens. I wanted to investigate their mediatory position as reflected in history and literature.

You had a domestic worker you were very close to for many years in Johannesburg. Was that an adjustment after the years in Europe?

I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, where an ambivalent, maternalistic relationship between “maids” and “madams” was typical. In Amsterdam, the relationship is businesslike.

Back in South Africa, Cecilia Nomahobe Magadlela came knocking at my door. I employed her for 25 years – she worked for me on Thursdays.

She has now retired to Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, and I pay her a pension. We phone each other. I have visited her. Her children phone me. Ours is typically the entangled relationship sociologists talk about.

What lessons did you learn in your research for the book?

Domestic work is done in a “frontier” zone, a stressful and unsettling space. Respect and adequate pay are essential.

What is next?

During visits in the 1950s to our grandparents, Aunty Meisie Cleophas cared for my twin sister and me. I recently “found” her via Facebook, and we reunited, 60 years later. It was three months before she died.

Because of the Group Areas Act (1950), her family was moved from the centre of Darling to Nuwedorp across the railway line. I want to write about the effect of the act on that small Western Cape town.

Like Family is published by Wits University Press


Words by Irna van Zyl


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