Women in the Service Industries in Southern Africa since 1900 – Dr Andrew Cohen & Dr Rory Pilossof

Women in the Service Industries in Southern Africa since 1900.

Andrew Cohen (University of Kent) and Rory Pilossof (University of the Free State)

There is a rich and well-developed historiography on work and labour in southern Africa. The colonial occupation of the region gave rise to new forms of work and social arrangements that have been well documented. The two most notable arenas of work were on the mines and white owned commercial farms that came into being under colonial rule. These two sectors dominate the historiography on work and labour, in both colonial and post-colonial studies. In addition, there has also been a great deal of attention focused on how labour was mobilised in the growing urban centres that expanded during the course of the twentieth century. Industrial growth, and the manufacturing sectors that developed around the cities, were new and radically different forms of work from anything present in the region prior to the late nineteenth century.

Table 1: Numbers of Agricultural Workers, Mine Workers, Domestic Service Workers and all other Service Workers in Zimbabwe, 1911-2002


Unsurprisingly, many scholars have sought to study these processes of change in the working lives of Africans during and after colonial occupation. Indeed, there is a vast literature on labour, covering, but not limited to, topics such as the migration patterns; working and living conditions on farms and mines; wages; identity; labour control; unionisation; political mobilisation; and changing social and familial structures due to the new arrangements in place.

Part of the reason for the wealth of critical literature, particularly from 1890 to the present, is the availability of archival sources with which to undertake such research – censuses, labour surveys, labour reports, company records, personnel files and the like. This documentation has provided the foundations on which other forms of research (interview, life histories, ethnographic investigations) have sought to further unpack the lived experience of the working lives of people in Africa.

However, these archival sources fundamentally misrepresent and undercount the working lives of women in southern Africa. We plan to explore the spaces left by women in the official statistics in an Advanced Newton Fellowship project (titled ‘Labour Migration and Labour Relations in South and southern Africa, c.1900-2000’) that we are currently running. Our project’s broad aim is to provide a platform (which currently does not exist) for data to undertake historical and long-term comparative work on employment and labour development in southern Africa. In particular, we look to give scholars and other interested parties ways to compare the growth, working populations and function of the different industrial sectors across the region. This data will illustrate what the major industries of employment were, how these shifted over time, rates of proletarianization and urbanisation, shifting occupational structures and the impacts these have had on people’s lives.

While this project is still in mid-stage, we have already found some interesting threads to follow. One is the number of people, and women in particular, involved in the services, and especially private domestic labour. Let’s look at the example of Zimbabwe, one of our case studies very briefly.

As is apparent in the table below, women were on the periphery of the formal economy in Zimbabwe, as until the 1950s, women were hardly counted in the official stats. By the 1940s, only 3,700 women were recorded as working in the wage economy. This rose to 41,000 in 1956, but the total female population in 1956 was approximately 1.2 million. As is clear, women’s participation in various forms of waged labour was restricted. However, one sector where women became well represented, outside of agriculture, was in the service industry. In the early part of the century, domestic servants were almost all men. However, by the end of the century, over 55% of domestic workers were women. And, the number of women in these roles were impressive. By 2000, nearly 350,000 women were employed in the services.

Yet, women were hardly visible to the colonial state. They were undercounted and underrepresented, and these attitudes carried over into the post-colonial era. However, as Elizabeth Schmidt has shown, women took advantage of many new opportunities offered to them in the cities and towns that expanded rapidly after the 1950s.[1] While women were largely excluded from jobs in the manufacturing and industrial workforce, many became involved in the provision of services, both formal and informal.

Table 2: Women Employed in Agriculture, Mining, Manufacturing and Services in Zimbabwe, 1911-2012


Domestic service employed more people than mining and manufacturing from the 1960s onward. Yet, despite the obviously large number of women (and men) working in domestic labour, there is very little dedicated work investigating this field. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on mine and farm labour across the region. While these are obviously important sectors, domestic service is equally important. Those working as household cleaners, cooks, childminders and gardeners in urban settings in southern Africa were at the forefront of new ways of being and working that need considered investigation for a number of key reasons. Firstly, many of the initial domestic servants were the first workers in the new urban centres that were establishing themselves. They had to navigate new living arrangement, new working conditions, new technologies and performances, and new ways of being families. These surely had significant impacts on the experiences and understandings of the people who fulfilled these roles. Secondly, the roles and functions meant that they were often at the very interface of conflicting notions of race, class, gender and ethnicity. These issues have not subsided with the end of colonial rule. The contested and uneven processes of colonisation, urbanisation and new forms of economic activity changed the social and working lives of the region’s inhabitants in a myriad of ways. Domestic service is and was a large employment sector and the lived experiences of these people is radically understudied. We lack even the basic understanding on key avenues of investigation, such as: the roles and duties of women servants; the changing nature of gendered roles of domestic service; the organisation and representation of this sector; the wages paid comparative to other sectors;  the differences in experience in settler or non-settler colonies, attitudes to domestic work under different colonial regimes; and what the results were of the exposure to new ways of living and being these servants encountered. These are important avenues of research and we hope to start addressing some of them in our project.

Domestic service, and the service sector in general, cuts across important issues such as urbanisation, changing social structures, and new opportunities for women in colonial and post-colonial Africa. Considering the huge literature we have on mine workers and farm labourers, practically nothing exists on domestic workers and their experiences, understandings and livelihoods; an interesting and exciting field which will hopefully expand in the coming years.

Dr Andy Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. His main research interests are business and decolonisation in southern Africa.

Dr Rory Pilossof is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the Free State, South Africa. His main research interests are land, labour, and decolonisation in southern Africa.


[1] E. Schmidt, Peasants, Traders, and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, 1870-1939 (Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH: 1992)

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