Bayanda Mzoneli

About Bayanda Mzoneli

Bayanda Mzoneli is a public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

Last week I berated Dambi (aka Mazinyo) for liking a Facebook comment that had homophobic undertones. Dambi is a young female activists who serves in various structures of liberation movement, and appears to be destined for bigger responsibilities.

In berating her, I mentioned that as an activist she should attempt to bridge the gap between the values she feigns to espouse for political reasons, and the her actual values. Time will tell whether that message fell on deaf ears.

As an armchair revolutionary, I try to practice the values I feign to espouse, as far as possible. A venn diagram of the values and practice need not be two separate circles.

One of the least known facts is that Section 13 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa says, “No one may be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labour.” For the purposes of this text, I am going to ascribe a meaning to “servitude” that includes chores conventionally expected of wives, girlfriends, and girl children.

Conventionally, it is expected that cooking, child minding, cleaning, washing and other household chores are performed by women. For some women in the past, and to some extent, in the present, the execution of these chores is seen as a rightful necessity, and something to be proud of.

A social construct that has been passed on for many generations can evolve into an innate attribute. It contains reinforcing factors, such as men who may be bad at cooking. As such, a wife would rather cook than eat boiled food, or risk poisoning from a poorly executed internet recipe.

All this is good and well. Many generations have survived off the servitude of women. It is likely that some outliers would take longer to adapt. But the reality is that the world is changing, and it ought to change.

Various studies have began to ask difficult question about what is termed unpaid work. Studies suggest that in developing countries, such as South Africa, on average, women spend 4.5 hours per day on unpaid work, while men spend only 1.3 hours per day on unpaid work. See the graphs below from UN and OECD, you may google more.

Figure 1: Unpaid Work (UN, 2013)
Figure 2: Unpaid work (OECD, 2014)

There are some of us who see this situation as unavoidable, something we have to live with. But there are some of us, particularly men, who ought to be conscious of our privilege, and begin to reflect on what to do about it.

Ayanda (my daughter) is 12 years old. It is unlikely that gender equality would be achieved by the time she is an adult. But that is not a sufficient reason for me, as her father, to do nothing, within my means, to tilt the scales in favour of equality.

In an effort to tilt the scales, her and I entered into a bilateral agreement in 2018. The bilateral agreement says every time it is her turn to wash the dishes, she can ask me to do it in her stead, when I am around. In return she has to write a two page essay/story about anything. Although the agreement was signed in February 2018, she has only called on it 3 times, up to 13 March 2019. I am yet to consider why she is not calling on it more often.

Last week, we had to lay my late cousin brother to rest. Her daughter, my niece, as part of cutting costs, had suggested that her and her friend, plus other women from the extended family would do the chopping and cooking for the funeral.

In the Kingdom in the east, events of this nature are even called Umsebenzi (a Zulu word for work), though most men would probably translate it to mean Feast to avoid acknowledging their privilege. It is never acknowledged that it is UNPAID work.

To avoid getting all philosophical on my grieving niece, I told her that I have some discomfort with them doing the cooking, which I will explain to her some other time. But if that is what they had resolved, I would not stand in their way.

Fortunately, the caterer came back a day later offering a 30% discount from her original price. I was pleased that this would free my niece to mourn her father instead of spending the night chopping and the morning cooking.

Sadly, this week we lost our grandmother. We are attempting to have the funeral this weekend to avoid incurring the costs of criers. The discussion has come up again, with my cousin brother informing me that their wives, and our cousin sisters, will handle the catering, so we have to remove it in the costs on the spreadsheet.

I have agonised on whether to express my discomfort in the extended family WhatsApp group or let this slide. I settled on writing this blog, whose link I will post on the WhatsApp group. I do not know what would be ultimate decision on this, though I feel strongly that women in the family should be freed to mourn our gogo instead of being confined into kitchen chopping and cooking.

Subverting this convention in the family is not my original idea. It was started by my younger sister, Nontokozo. After she started working, whenever there would Umsebenzi at home, she would hire a helper and bring her home to chop and cook on her behalf. Her reasons may have been different but they fit to the point of this text. When she hosted us for Christmas last year, I was the one sweating in her kitchen while she chilled with a bottle of fermented grapes. I digress.

Obviously, nothing prevents converting the same unpaid work into paid work by remunerating the family members who execute the work by the amount equivalent to what would have been paid to the caterer, or even more, adding the family premium. The difference, however, is that that ought to be a choice they freely make, not servitude or forced labour, that is prohibited by the Constitution. In any case some of them may have no interest in becoming entrepreneurs in mass catering. It need not be imposed on them.

Privilige may suggest that the paying of lobola of 11 cows entitles men to a lifetime of servitude. It would even present as evidence that, on the wedding day, both families sang in unison, “Umakoti ungowethu, siyavuma, uzosiphekel’ asiwashele, siyavuma, sithi yelele yelele, siyavuma...” Nothing could be more nonsensical.

Of course, the chopping on the eve of Umsebenzi, is also an opportunity for women to catch on illuminating gossip. Brides gain insights about their husbands from their sisters-in-law and aunts-in-law that may not ordinarily be readily shared. But chopping is not a requirement for gossip to happen.

Just like the priviliged men often reminisce about who slaughtered the beast at which Umsebenzi, some women may derive fulfilment and contentment at that they cooked the best food to send off their loved one. It is may be recounted with a sense of pride that some barely slept since they chopped until early hours of the morning.

Perhaps in the past, conditions existed that necessitated and enabled such disproportionate abuse of women to prevail. We have no reason to let this continue.

What makes our action more urgent is that unpaid work is just one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that even in paid work, women are paid way below men, even for the same amount of work. A study by Accenture suggests that if we do certain things, we could close the paid work pay gap by 2041, but if we do too little, it could take up to 2093 to achieve equality. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Getting to equal (Accenture, 2017)

With prevailing unemployment and uneven economic participation, women are not suddenly going to be able to buy their way out of unpaid work. Some men may also not afford to buy their loved ones out of it. The solutions are not only monetary.

Slaughtering is not as time consuming as chopping multiple vegetables and meat. Some men, after slaughtering, proceed to cooking the meat though that tends to focus on their favourite parts such as the head, feet and insides. That may be expanded to cooking the stews and grains in order to redistribute the load of cooking equitably.

This text does not succinctly present the problem nor does it propose viable solutions. It is from the small ideas, and unsustainable solutions that the bigger ones would come. If family is the basic unit of society, nothing stops us from starting there to incrementally introduce changes that are directed at making the world better for our daughters and sons. In any case, it is in the family where the unpaid work largely happens.

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1,452 Comments Already

  1. very helpful, thank you

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