The Black Female Worker In The Room


This essay explores the historical consciousness of young workers in South Africa, focusing on young black women workers. It draws on Lucaks ideas on history and class consciousness and Freirean participatory pedagogy to facilitate a critical reflection and dialogue between young Black working women on their memories and perspective of the conditions, realities and experiences of Black working women in colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

There are four women who respectively work in the retail industry, the health sector and the education sector. Only two of the women drawn into this conversation have met physically. The writer/interviewer, who plays the role of the facilitator of the dialogue in this case, knows three of the woman personally and only knows the other woman via social media. The chief media of the engagement is inbox messages on Facebook. This is a symbolic articulation of how social media and technology can be appropriated for critical social dialogue and building a counter-culture to a gated pedagogy that is anchored on creating borders between people.

The broad definition of workers is that of all people who utilise their bodies, emotions and intellects to individually and/or collectively engage in productive activity that yields goods and services that meets the welfare and wellbeing needs of human beings (and the environment). This includes work done through private, social, communal, public or state initiatives and platforms for subsistence and sustenance, for income and livelihood, for recreation and leisure; and for social purposes and commercial purposes.

However, in a capitalist society the most dominant notion of workers is that of labourers who sell their labour power (physical and intellectual exertion) in exchange of one or other kind of remuneration. The relationship between the labourer (employee) and owner (employer) is based on some informal or formal, unwritten or written arrangement.

This arrangement or so-called social contract is itself centred on the ownership and control of land, machinery and the power to determine both the value of the labour that produces goods and services required for the primary and secondary needs of human beings and the value of the goods and services. The power to determine the value of the labour and of the goods and services it produces invariably translates into the power to determine and control the patterns of the distribution and consumption of the goods and services.

Private ownership and control of land and other natural resources, labour power, the machinery and key strategic areas of the economy such as agriculture, mining and energy; finance, real estate and insurance; communication and transport results in inequitable distribution and consumption of goods and service. This includes unequal and inequitable patterns and processes of the generation, accumulation, dissemination, control, access and utilisation of information and knowledge. In a capitalist society information and knowledge, culture and science become commodities as much as they are a vital resource for social, political, economic and cultural power.

Labour power is the primary resource that transform land, natural resources into the physical, social, economic and cultural currency required for human life, civilisation and for the survival and all species. Divesting, devaluing and commodifying a people’s labour and denying them the right to determine the value of their labour and the right to value, own and control the distribution and consumption of the goods and services derived from their labour is tantamount to disrobing people of their humanity. The alienation and commodification of labour turns wealth-creation, accumulation of capital and maximisation of profits into the key movers of history, and technological inventions and labour power as mere instrument. In this manner humanity is stripped of its value as a key mover of history. The mechanics of the market are presented as the maker of history and human beings are turned into products of the market and servants of the captains of capital.

However, capital does not operate on its own. It appropriates and utilises non-capital, non-market forces and structures such as the state, civil society and social structures such as the family, religion, education, culture and academic discourse to push the doctrine of the eternity, universality and sacrosanctity of market demands. This usually takes the form of a complementary relationship between economism and statism. Economism refers to the idea that human freedom and human development is only possible through economic development and statism refers to the idea that only economic development is only possible through the state. The overemphasis of the state and the market as the chief movers of development dislocates labour and civil society as the key movers of development. It presents labour and civil society as only cogs in the machinery of the state and the market.

Consequently, labour and society are constructed as consumers of rights, goods and services created by the state and the markets rather than as creators of these rights, goods and services. This way human beings are depicted as products of a civilisation rather its creators. People are turned into artefacts of history, articles manufactured by civilisations and statistics of science rather than makers and re-creators of history, civilisation, science and culture. The dominant narrative of historical and social processes becomes that of the market and the state. The dominant ideas and voice in society become that of capital.

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The voices and narratives of those who don’t own and control the means of production and have been alienated from the ownership, control and value of their labour are muffled and written off. Bertolt Brecht provides poignant portrayal of the blotting off the faces and voices of the underclasses in history and the portrayal of history, civilisation, culture, arts and science as the handiwork of kings, statesmen and generals:

Young Alexander conquered India. He alone?

Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?

Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed.

Were there no other tears?

Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.

Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory

At whose expense the victory ball?

Every ten years a great man,

Who paid the piper? [[i]]

The consciousness of workers about their place and role in history and their awareness of the different ways through which dominant narratives of history serve the agenda of the ruling and propertied classes can go a long way in putting workers at the centre of the making and remaking of history. The role of the consciousness for an oppressed people and exploited classes in the struggle for their emancipation and liberation cannot be overemphasised.

Lucaks underlines the importance of consciousness when he asserts that though the working-class should start from the given situation, it should go beyond contingencies of history and be the driving force rather simply be driven by history. Lucaks further argues that class-consciousness arises when the proletariat see society from the centre of the coherent whole. [[ii]]

This implies that the proletariat should be conscious of the history behind their realities and reclaim their position as agents rather than mere subjects of history. How working-class people perceive history and their place in is a crucial aspect of their level of worker-consciousness and working-class consciousness. There is therefore a need for critical interrogation of how workers perceive worker-history and working-class history and how this shape their engagement with the present and their view of the future. In the South African context, the capitalist division of labour highly utilised prevailing structures of racial segregation and patriarchy.

Black workers and women are therefore the soft targets of super-exploitation of labour by capital and are prime victims of various forms of social disenfranchisement. Despite affirmative action and employment equity measures, the labour market continues to be more favourable to men than to women, with men more likely to be in paid employment than women and unemployment among women higher than in men. Most women are in lowly paid jobs or in casual, precarious and informal employment. Not much attention is paid to recognition and remuneration of unpaid care work, which is mostly done by women.

Although there is greater unionisation of women, significant positions of power and control in the union are still predominately the domain of men and women and there still exists various form of marginalisation, silencing and veiling of women in the unions. Among others, this is reflected by the fact that the gender wage gap is larger in the union sector than in other sectors. Logically, the dominant discourse is characterised by the throttling and veiling of the voices and faces of Black workers and Black working-class women. It is therefore necessary to examine how Black workers and Black women view the history and evolution of their conditions and realities at the workplace and how they view their future at the workplace and in broader society.

In the spirit of giving a platform to the voices and perspectives of workers and to let workers speak in their own voices we have opted to explore this in the form of conversation with young Black women workers. Poet, singer, Siza Nkosi holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Rhodes University and host literary and cultural events under the auspices of the House of Siza. She is currently working as a teacher in Soweto. Zanele Makhaye is a Shopsteward of South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union and a cashier at Pick n Pay at Pavillion Mall. Mamagadi Kgonodi is a professional nurse and a fulltime Shopsteward at the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa in Pretoria, Tshwane. Nikiwe Khumalo is a financial clerk at Life Casternhof Hospital in Midrand, Johannesburg. Siza and myself have met several times courtesy of literary activism, literary festivals and literary journals. Zanele and Mamagadi are my former students at Workers’ College. Nikiwe and I are Facebook friends and have not met in real life.

The cyberspace is the place where the five of us convene for an “online dialogue” to discuss about Black working life in colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. We focus on the experiences and contributions of Black working women and what the future of Black women workers in the country currently called South Africa looks like. Our starting point of our dialogue is an overview of the workplace realities and relations and conditions of Black workers in colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


My mother was my main source of information about workplace realities in South Africa and the conditions of Black women at the workplace and in society in the apartheid era. Her narrative was marked by emotions of anger and frustrations. What I gathered from the bit she shared about her experiences was that being a woman under apartheid was like being Black twice. I am not sure whether I should start with where my mother almost got raped or when she became bipolar.


Personally, I gathered most information on the conditions of Black workers from newspapers and stories told by my father and my uncles. These days I like listening to retired nurses. Their stories can really open your eyes. Most of these nurses were not even trade unionists. They were just Black healthcare workers receiving the bitter end of the stick. In my view, the women in the period between 1652 and 1990 were mostly conditioned to be housewives taking care of the family with their success being judged based on family status and the social position of their husbands.

From the 1960s onwards, career women were mostly teachers and nurses, which entrenched the stereotype of women as caregivers by nature. This mentality persists today. That is why the idea of woman leadership is still a culture shock to many men. While it was somehow acceptable to speak of women empowerment, the concept of gender equality has confused many people. In the post-apartheid dispensation, Black women are still oppressed in many ways. The saddest thing is that women have internalised their oppression. Very often women entrench their own oppression and give their oppressors the upper hand through passive endurance and oppression of women by other women.


In many ways, one can say that workplace realities and relations in South Africa in period from 1652 to 1990 were characterised by slavery and oppression. Workers’ rights were non-existent for Black workers. White people dominated, with or without education. The Black worker was a number, not a person. Black workers were subjected to barbaric and degrading treatment such as the medical tests that male workers had to go through at Kwamuhle. Being a worker brought shame to Black men because it took away the authority and dignity they had in their homes. The system did not allow Blacks to think about trading because it wanted to keep them as labourers.

A case in point is the criminalisation of isqatha and sorghum beer to establish the domination of white owned beer halls who sold sorghum beer. Workers’ resistance was pitted not just against exploitative and oppressive working conditions, but also against an oppressive system, a repressive government and unjust laws.

The period between 1990 and 1994 was characterised by uncertainty because of the anticipated political changes. White workers feared losing their grip of the workplace while Black workers had hope that things were going to change for the better and were motivated to fight for their cause. There was heightened awareness and worker resistance because of the changing political environment and international support. Workers felt more empowered to mobilise for their cause. The scene changed after 1994. The focus diverted from collective good of the workers to personal enrichment. Greed is the main cause of the diversion. The focus is on power and allegiance than on the workers’ struggle and the fight against the exploitative system of capitalism.

Today things look good on paper, but the realities are not as black and white. Government intervention through the Labour Relations Act, Affirmative Action, Employment Equity Act and Black Economic Empowerment has seen few Black people climbing up the ladder in the workplace. The educated Blacks have made it through the cracks and have more opportunities to partner with big business but for the uneducated things are getting worse… for most Black people things remain the same. The more the working-class make noise about issues that affect them, the more they are muzzled in the political sphere.


Let me add on what Zanele and Mamagadi just explained very well. In colonial South Africa, Black people were not thought of as self-sufficient people, who can build up and drive the economic and social system of its own land and people. Laws and policies set in motion to prohibit “natives” from actively participating in the economy. Currently, there are policies and programmes put in place to reverse and change the past laws of the apartheid era. But we still battle with ideologies of those who are in power in the work place. They still apply the same old, exhausted tactics of racism and sexism.

We move on to the general view of workers’ struggles, worker-resistance and worker movements in the different periods in the history of South Africa:


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