Wednesday 10 January 2018

Black Nannies

"The nanny phenomenon is closely allied to colonialism where servants administered ruling class needs. In South Africa, nannies are most often historically disenfranchised, working class, black woman."
Goldman, 2003

Photograph of a girl on the bench in Johannesburg taken by Peter Magubane, via

During the apartheid years, it was not only the affluent middle class who employed (black) domestic workers. White working classes had servants too.
South African domestic workers were legally bound by the Master-Servant Act. Non-performance and contractual breach included whipping and imprisonment. Domestic service was "a microcosm of the exploitation and inequality on which the entire social order was based". In this microcosm, the nanny experienced a "triple oppression": the intersection of ethnic, gender and class exploitation.
Live-in domestic workers lived in the "servant's quarter", typically at the back of the property. These were substandard living quarters without electricity and running water. They suffered extreme isolation since other people - their families, their friends - had no access. Due to the long working hours there was hardly any time to visit others. But even in their leisure time they were not free as they could be called in any time to do some extra work (Goldman, 2003).

Photograph taken on 18 May 1966: A white infant is bottle bed by her black nanny as her brother plays behind the "Nannies Only" seat in an all-white park in Johannesburg, via

"On any given day I would come home from school to find my nanny hanging out washing, or Samson, our neighbour's gardener, trimming the hedge between our houses. It never occurred to me that, other than nannies and gardeners, no one in my street was black. I never questioned why all my friends, except for a few snot-covered black toddlers who were sent home before they could talk, were white. I never wondered where home for those toddlers was. Never even thought to ask, as I helped my nanny pack her Christmas hamper, where she was going. (...)
Neatly segregated, I never noticed anything wrong with the way we were.
When I was 12, all that changed. As I stepped off my 'whites only' school bus, I had to step over the body of a black woman, the victim of a hit-and-run on Robert's Avenue. She was dressed in a green pinafore, the sort nannies wore. Someone had placed a newspaper over her face, but other than that, there was nothing to protect her from the sun, the ants and our curious stares. For three days she remained, unmoving, in front of my stop, and for three days I stepped gingerly over her, holding my breath. Eventually my mother called the police and demanded she be removed, commenting that they never would have left her there had she been white. The next day she was gone, but the knowledge that the indignity she had suffered was because of the colour of her skin stayed with me, and the way I viewed my world began to change.
Like many white South African children, I was in the care of a black nanny from an early age. By the time I stepped off that bus, I was a mish-mash of cultures, the purity of whiteness our government was trying so hard to preserve existed only on the surface. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at our kitchen table, talking to Gladys, my Zulu nanny, while a pot of mielie pap porridge bubbled on the stove. Served hot with butter and sugar, the porridge was delicious, though the pale yellow grains of ground maize made it a little gritty and I had to suck my teeth all the way to school."
Rachel Zadok

Photograph of children sitting on a bench along the waterfront in Durban taken by Dennis Lee Royle, via

"The human-to-human contact, as personal as it was, took place in a situation where race was the primary designator of social standing. Skin was the marker of not simply position in the economy, but supposedly also of superiority-inferiority. Historically this relationship was one of master and slave. It was in this larger context that both participants entered the relationship with a series of presumptions: for the master (and later his children) there was the supposition of dominance, where the servant had (been socialised and) come to accept her subordination. Inevitably the domestic worker as a black person came to be a receptacle of revulsion (the prevailing cultural mores), “an opportunity for white children to discover and experiment with attitudes and styles of racial domination” (Cock, 1989, p. 57). Certainly domestic workers were subject to numerous practises and rituals of inferiority. These rituals of inferiority afforded the employer ego enhancements that emanated from having an ‘inferior’ present; validating her lifestyle, her class and her racial privilege, her entire social world. The relationship thus provided the employer with ideological justifications for the economic and racially stratified system in which she lived and from which she derived benefit."
Goldman, 2003

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- Goldman, S. (2003). White Boyhood under Apartheid: The Experience of Being Looked After by a Black Nanny. Doctoral thesis: University of Pretoria


  1. Terrible stuff, really really terrible.

  2. What a surreal nightmare life must have been in South Africa.
    Many thanks for commenting, Kenneth and Derek!