In South Africa, it is not uncommon to hear families say that their domestic worker is a ‘friend of the family’ or even ‘like family’. While some employers strive to pay their ‘domestics’ a fairer wage, involve themselves in financing their laborers’ healthcare costs, and funding children's educations, most domestics are paid the minimal accepted daily rate of R100. Sometimes, the payment includes R10–R20, to buy a cheap lunch and transport money back to the township. The obvious socioeconomic power imbalances between the ‘madams’ and ‘maids’ of South Africa limit claims purporting to incorporate laborers into family structures. Yet, despite this, the language used to describe voluntary social contracts that determine the bonds of friendship, and the less voluntary — but obligatory — social contracts between family members is invoked in order to frame this unequal relationship.
Irma du Plessis (2011: 46) argues that domestic work, because of its ‘close affinity to the family’, operates as a ‘foundational unit in everyday and scholarly understandings of both “nation” and “society”’. Moreover, given the level of intimacy such laborers have in maintaining the architecture of white families, domestic work ‘may be understood not only as a contemporary social practice, that is, a lawful and regulated albeit imperfect and incomplete form of employment, but also as a central feature of what may be termed the apartheid social imaginary, an implicit social understanding of the way in which things stand between fellow citizens’. Taking into consideration the ‘extent to and the manner in which domestic work and the relationship between domestic workers, domestic employers and their respective families surface in the public domain in contemporary South Africa’, it is no wonder that this type of labor, and the laborers who carry it out, are ‘deeply inscribed with social meanings which are powerful in the present’.
The domestic spaces in which the boundaries of this unequal relationship are negotiated are also the location in which contemporary fears regarding the other — a ‘domesticated’ other who is invited into one's intimate spaces as a necessary component of maintaining one's exclusive domestic arena — are magnified.