The Unionist

Words by Janine Stephen & Photography by Sydelle Willow Smith

For most of her adult life, Mina Plaatjies has lived in one, deeply quiet room in Constantia, an exclusive suburb in Cape Town. Visiting this subtly determined 40-year-old means transecting different lives. The house stands on a shady street. It has an intercom, and electric gates that slide silently open and then gently shut again. Every day, Mina exits the polished front door to collect the newspaper, tossed over the boundary wall. She walks back past an array of family treasures and photographs in the lobby. The owner, Joan Friedmann* (70) and her husband, Matthew*, collected antiques; the formal rooms in the house are museum-like both in the scope of objects on display, and the hushed atmosphere. Left from the lobby is a cosy sitting room. A right turn takes Mina to the kitchen, where she may scan the headlines while making 4pm tea. To reach her own room, she will unlock the back door, pass the clothes line, climb a step and enter her room. As she speaks, Mina may drop references to “life outside”, how expensive it is, for example, but also how different. Because inside her employer’s Constantia home, Mina inhabits a work persona; outside, she is another person. 

Mina has cooked and cleaned in this family home for 18 years. She’s on duty from 8am to 2pm, and again from 4pm to 7pm, Monday to Friday. If she works overtime—on public holidays, weekends, or at night—she receives extra pay. She also makes a little extra doing washing and cleaning for Joan’s youngest son, Daniel*. She eats the same food as the rest of the household, sometimes sharing a meal in front of the television. She wears fleecy tracksuit pants and jumpers in winter, and a cotton overcoat in summer, also supplied by Joan. Mina is reluctant to divulge her basic salary—it is well over the minimum wage for domestic workers, but not enough to exclude her from qualifying for state housing (the cut-off is over R3500). Her room in Constantia has a separate bathroom with a yellow glass window that looks onto the garden. It is equipped with furniture supplied by Joan, a TV and a microwave. Personal items are stuck to the cupboards: a letter from her son Davelin (19) and daughter Jody-Lynn (13), also a poster on the “new generation in Generations”. On the dresser stands a framed picture of Mina, groomed, immaculate and clad in a graduation robe: it records the day in 2011 this domestic worker and trade unionist received a diploma in adult education from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Prieska is a small community on the banks of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. The town’s name is an adaption of a Koranna word meaning “place of the lost she-goat”. The entire population of Prieska added up to less than the number of people living in Constantia when Mina grew up. In Prieska today, 92.5% of people speak Afrikaans and 30.2% of youth in the local SiyaThemba municipality are unemployed. In mostly English-speaking Constantia, a place of evenly spread privilege, 96% of people have jobs. ​

“I came from a very poor background,” Mina says. It may in part be a reaction to being interviewed, but Mina is a serious person; she is not prone to jokes and flippancy. She thinks before she speaks, which is in English, a language she learnt after moving to Cape Town. Mostly she deploys her adopted language in the present tense. “In Prieska, people work on the farms, in the clinic, as domestic workers and sometimes contracts, like government [public works jobs] for a few months,” she says. “Otherwise, young people are just sitting.” Mina’s mother, Anna Niehoudt (77), was a domestic worker on a nearby sheep farm. Mina never met her real father. She was 14 or 15 when she recognised—or as Mina puts it, “opened my eyes”—to the fact that the farm worker her mother was married to was not her father. Life was hard; these were times when workers accepted anything they were given, Mina says. There was no minimum wage, and few rights.

Somehow, Mina made it to standard six, harbouring dreams of being a teacher. “I don’t think any little girls dream of becoming a domestic worker,” she says. “You don’t choose that, it just happens.” By this time she had three sisters and a brother, and the family had moved to town, which made it easier for the younger kids to go to school (they all studied further than Mina, although none completed matric). Mina’s stepfather drank a lot. He hit his wife, and Mina. “When you’re grown up, you sit and think about all these things. I think now, that was abuse. But my mother never understood this thing of abuse.”

Mina decided she needed to leave school and find work. She’d helped her mother on Saturdays and during the holidays—so she “knew the job”. At first she worked weekends for a local family. This contact found her a full-time job on an orange farm in Citrusdal, 200km north of Cape Town, where she looked after twins for about R600 a month. She sent her first salary cheque home to her mother untouched: the employers bought her everything, even toiletries. In Citrusdal she met a man, David Abrahams, also a farm worker. Mina had a son at 21, which caused problems with work. The relationship with David (who has passed on) also grew strained. And so she set her eyes on the city. She asked a friend to find her a job in Cape Town, because she “wanted to experience something more”. She arrived, alone, head stuffed with taxi route numbers and strange place names. A first job in Boston with a single mother, an estate agent, didn’t work out. The next was right here, in Constantia, with Joan.

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