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The Politics and Ethics of keeping things clean: striking insights from South Africa


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 By Tarryn Frankish Globally, the question of how to deal with the ‘dirty business’ of keeping things clean remains pertinent. In this blog I look to South Africa for insight into these questions as strikes around the globe by cleaning staff force us to think about the politics and ethics of keeping things clean elsewhere.

As a Desmond Tutu scholar, working at the Vrije University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa I have the unique opportunity of spending time in two countries as I work towards my doctoral degree. My first trip to Amsterdam coincided with a strike by cleaning services in May 2010. More recently, as I was leaving Amsterdam in February 2012, the working conditions of cleaning staff were again in question. This question resonates with what I have come to know in South Africa.  Striking similarities in the way ‘cleaning’ is organised in the Netherlands and South Africa became apparent to me during my stays despite the contextual differences between the two countries, wherein cleaning work is performed and negotiated. The situation in South Africa (and some of the similarities witnessed in Amsterdam) suggests much for thinking about the politics and ethics of keeping things clean in a global context. I present four striking (indeed literally striking) insights from South Africa that I believe offer something into the questions about the working conditions of cleaning staff to the global questions and debates:

Cleaning is political

Who cleans and how has always been a political question in South Africa. In a country where domestic chores within middle class homes, including cleaning, have predominantly been hired out to black women, the politics of Apartheid (literally separateness) had to accommodate the movement of these women within racialised spaces: including allocations of passes into urban spaces for movement and even residence (often on the properties of white bosses).  The history of cleaning has been a political one but there remains something to be said in a post-Apartheid South Africa, and a 21st century world, about (im)migration and the politics of who keeps things clean.

Cleaning is about race and class

Within South Africa, the answer to who keeps things clean remains the same as it always was: poor, black men and women.  Although it seems obvious that the threads of disadvantage intersect differently in the Netherlands, what is revealing is that cleaning work exists on the lowest strata of the social scale; attracting and maintaining communities on the margins of society. It does not seem coincidental to me that there remains a racial dynamic to cleaning services in South Africa and across the globe, including in the Netherlands. During my time at the Vrije University in Amsterdam the only black faces I saw were those of visitors or cleaning staff, and the latter only after hours when the offices were otherwise empty. There is some irony that cleaning happens ‘under the cover of darkness’.

Cleaning support invisibilities

Despite the ubiquitousness of cleaning services, South Africans have made an art out of rendering particular services and even particular kinds of people invisible. Certain forms of cleaning are considered ‘best’ particularly when they are invisible. People tend to comment on the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of beaches, malls, and other public spaces only when the invisible services fail to perform their regular brand of magic to maintain and beautify these places. There is some irony that ‘cleanliness’ only becomes visible when it is perceived absent! More, it is not only the services but the people who perform them who are often invisible. As noted in point two above, these people are already those who live on the margins of society. It is not uncommon for people to refer to those who clean their homes, garden or offices with patronising titles like ‘the (cleaning) girl’ or ‘the (garden) boy’, or an anglicised name to accommodate the employer’s English tongue. The language used to speak of and to people who clean makes it possible for others to see them solely through the description of their work, and not as individuals outside of the work context. It would not be strange for employers to be surprised by or even fail to recognise staff outside of the work environment.

Invisibilities support and hide inhuman conditions

That people can be invisible in this way is socially dangerous, resonating with the Dutch slogan: ‘nooit meer onzichtbaar’ [no longer invisible]. In South Africa, the failure to ‘see’ people and to recognise their humanity (as evidenced within cleaning work) opens the door to other kinds of social ills. Overtly, particular kinds of people become locked into a cycle of poverty and this becomes accepted as natural, normal and inevitable. More subtly, other kinds of social ills become a part of the social psyche. Rampant greed and corruption, a bug-bear of those writing about the state of South Africa’s economy, are only possible in a society where people fail to recognise and empathise with the humanity of those they are in effect stealing from. The biggest danger is that because  those who work at the lowest strata of society (including various cleaning staff) become invisible, the link between the working conditions of these people and more insidious social ills are concealed.

The challenge to these pressing questions about the working conditions of cleaning staff globally, including in the Netherlands, is to consider the politics and ethics of keeping things clean. It seems almost superfluous to say that a society’s character is evidenced through how it organises its ‘cleanliness’.

Tarryn Frankish is a PhD candidate in the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam NRF Desmond Tutu doctoral programme. She is working on questions of Youth Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Her project sits in the SAVUSA Desmond Tutu programme at the VU and in the school of Psychology at Wits in South Africa.

One Comment

  1. donya donya

    thanks for this! just to add to the (in)visibility point in the case of the VU in particular: the university is hiring temporary workers from other cleanings companies to clean, as well as asking employees to clean up after themselves. in this sense, not only are the cleaners themselves made invisible as well as their work, as you rightly mention, but even the effects of their currently ongoing strike are made invisible by the university undermining said strike.

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