Jo'Burg Startup: Domestic Help & ICT for Kids

Doris Lessing’s brilliant first novel, The Grass is Singing paints a vivid account of white attitudes towards domestic help in 40s South Africa. In this world, everyone has staff. The women’s lives revolve around berating servants’ uselessness and struggling to find labour that makes the grade. But underneath the surface everyone is terrified of having people in their houses.

In a post-Apartheid South Africa some of this still remains true, albeit slightly differently. And the use of domestic help is extremely common. Compared to the US, which has 1.8 million domestic workers registered (and about seven times the population), South Africa has 1.2 million [pdf], so, based on the population ratio, it is far more common. Yet it remains regulated.

“People stop their car next to a bus stop, see people waiting there and ask a group of people if there is anyone looking for work,” says Dr Aisha R. Pandor co-founder of Jo’Burg startup, SweepSouth.  “That is really typical,” chimes in her developer husband and fellow co-founder, Alen Ribic. “It is a proper wild wild west here,” he adds.

The fact there is no centralised way to find and manage domestic staff makes things dangerous or difficult for employers and employees alike. It means despite a South African employment act and minimum wage, rules are not adhered to. And it is because of this, and their own personal experiences, that Pandor and Ribic decided to launch SweepSouth this May in Johannesburg.

SweepSouth is a real-time platform for booking and paying for domestic cleaning services online. It provides two-way ratings and monitoring. But the real benefit is transparency and accountability for both parties:

“The reason nobody has done anything before is this industry has remained very untransformed post-Apartheid,” explains Pandor. “You still have a very old school traditional mentality between employers and domestic workers. It is still unprofessional, not formalised. A lot of people are paid [cash] in hand and it is subject to a lot of abuse. It hasn’t been transformed in the last twenty years.”

There is a union, The South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), however, this only began in 2000 and has a limited number of members compared to the workforce as a whole. “We were horrified to learn that some of the ladies we used were earning far under the minimum wage,” continues Pandor.

“These workers have been abused by how they get paid or underpaid,” adds Ribic. “We want to set a standard for what domestic workers as professionals should be getting.”

South Africa is still a very oral culture and there are big issues with internet connectivity. Yet in a situation like this where prejudice and inequality have been endemic for so long, technology does allow people from across this desperately divided country to meet on an equal footing. This has not been possible before, as anonymous forms of contact, like classified adverts, are not moderated by a third party.

The promise is, by putting centrally administered checks in place, it should be far less dangerous for a lone woman going into the house of someone she doesn’t know. Whilst rich employees also should have some peace of mind that their possessions will be safe in the hands of a stranger.

Many of the problems throughout South Africa are widespread and ultimately come down to poorly administered initiatives. But technology is one clear way to empower people from the ground up and Ribic is keen to stress that: “It is extremely important to encourage creation of technology, and not just consumption, at the grassroots level.”

“We have an ICT curriculum that has taken a long time to implement,” he continues. “It was formulated in 2003 and that is only being implemented now, and that is in high schools. That is a serious problem. In the past 11 years we have learned a lot when it comes down to computational thinking and how do we actually make computers do things, to actually create technology, so this [slowness] is a big sore spot.”

Ribic is now campaigning with stakeholders to help formalise a proper curriculum in primary schools and provide young children with vital skills. This is a big challenge, especially when you consider other problems (such as electricity and water) in rural areas. However, everything takes a very long time in South Africa. So, any slow move towards greater equality can hardly be a bad thing.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect



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