Diary Pages: Housework

We asked our diarists: Who does the household chores during lockdown? Has this changed from your normal routine? 

Lockdown has changed the way we engage in public, but has it changed the way our homes are run? We asked our respondents to reflect on their daily chores in order to gain greater insight into gender dynamics in the private sphere. Research has shown that women still tend to bear the brunt of domestic duties. Often this means that they have to bear a ‘double burden’ of both domestic work and paid labour.

In South Africa, this work is also outsourced to domestic workers, who represent an estimated 8% of the country’s total labour force. This outsourced work is also gendered, with most domestic workers being black, working-class women. Our questions were posed to diarists before the Level Four restrictions came into play, allowing domestic workers to return to their employment. We were interested to know what impact lockdown had on the distribution of housework.

While the burden of housework still largely falls to women, some participants noted a positive change in the balance of responsibility for domestic work. Although the extent of this change differs – and the long-term consequences of these changes are unknown – it seems that lockdown may have opened up new models for domestic work in the home.

The status quo prevails

Although the Lockdown has brough change for some, many of our respondents would agree with Ash from Delft, that ‘nothing has changed. The routine is still the same, I wake up, take a bath, do my chores and get to work.’ For Lumkile from Khayelitsha, ‘At my house all is still the same. Everyone still does the duties they did before lockdown’. Esethu, Khaya, Luyolo, Taila, Sivuyile (from Khayelitsha) and Mpho (from Seapoint) all agree. For many, that means that women are doing most of the work, but in other cases, the division of labour has always been more equal. As Ishrene, in Marina da Gama explains, ‘the interesting thing about our household is that I never assigned gender specific roles to chores.’

It’s all change but for the better…

However, for others the lockdown has brought change for the better. Some are cleaning more and happy to have the time to do this. Patsie from Khayelitsha explains how ‘the lock down has made me very responsible. Everything is now perfect in my room and everywhere in my house. I wash the floor every day, the washing does have to wait for me to make time for it or for a weekend‘.

Others are finding that their partners and children are assisting in chores and household work in ways they never used to, and that this in turn eases their burden. In Khayelitsha Thando’s partner is now at home more often than she is and so, ‘Things have changed because…my partner now does most of the chores‘. For Lilly from suburban Woodstock, while her husband has always helped out now he does extra chores, ‘like washing his clothes when need arises’.  Nolwando from Delft used to be solely responsible for maintaining the home, but now ‘Everyone is doing house chores because all of us we are in the house …so kids and daddy now they also play the role’.

“Household chores is normally done by my mom and niece while I was at work. Now everyone in the house helps. With the added responsibilities falling on me to clean the yard and surrounding area outside.” – Warren, Hangberg

Some are getting used to providing more help in the house, in ways they never used to. Bonga, from Khayelitsha describes how ‘ever since lockdown I help her [partner] more because I am around most of time working from home. Initially it was kind of difficult because I was not used to that kind of setting but I adjusted as days went by and I believe I have settled quiet well.’

Nathi, from Imizamo Yethu, describes how everyone takes turns to get the chores done, which is a change from the normal routine and ‘now everyone is at home so we help each other, so it will be fun to do chores‘. Nozuko, from Philippi, notes how everyone wants to do the household chores, because ‘people are tired to sit and lie down’.

In some cases, the types of roles that people take on also differ by gender, even when they are shared more equitably. For example, for Jay in Marina da Gama, grocery shopping is split between family members but, ‘cooking is shared by myself and my mom or we each sort ourselves out if nobody cooks. My brother tends to the electrical things etc. around the house if there is an issue. My little sister will clean when asked.’

Timetables and rosters…

A strong theme emerging from some diarist is that of families pulling together to get housework done. Many do this through setting up timetables and rosters. Andile explains, that ‘When it comes to household chores during lockdown everyone participates. We collectively decide who cleans the yard but since I suggested a roster, it has helped share the chores better. I no longer do some things I used to because other members of our big family now do them‘. Where Assie lives in Khayelitsha, ‘There are a lot of people in the house now, so we did a timetable for evening duties‘ and for Sim there is a ‘rotation routine‘ at home: ‘One cooks, one cleans’. Zukiswa in Khayelitsha lives with five children in Khayelitsha ‘They are doing household chores…we had a timetable each and every one had something to do’.

“Its become more formalized, the household chores. The way in works is that [my partner] does the cleaning and I do the cooking and then I’ll help her in the weekend cause we’ve always had a domestic worker so obviously there is a lot more work to be done than we are normally used to, but its worked brilliantly.”  Dandelion, Seapoint

The chores mount up…’it’s a massive change’

Several of our respondents agreed that although there has been a change in their normal routine in terms of household chores, this is not for the better. The reality of lockdown has led to increased demands in the home.

“I am the eldest at home with many responsibilities including buying household stuff and maintaining the house, the list goes on and on…Now that it is lockdown I have to make sure that everything is in order from buying essentials, cleaning, do the washing, look after my sisters children including my niece and do the cooking making sure that everyone is fed and taking safe healthy measures at the same time. There is too much to do and..as the situation of coronavirus is deteriorating rapidly, so more work is piling up.” – China, Khayelitsha

Nonceba, in Khayelitsha, has now found she is juggling her community work and her household responsibilities on her own: ‘the routine has changed completely because during whole day I do community work and at night when kids are sleeping I then do house chores’. Nessie, in Elsies River, is struggling to fit in her household chore but is ‘expected to do more since my parents assume that I have more free time even though I’m busy with assignments‘.

For some the increase in household chores is because domestic workers are no longer working in the home. As Judy from Newlands explains, ‘Usually we do have assistance with the housework and childcare from our nanny/housekeeper but now in lockdown we don’t. So that’s a massive change.

“We have to all chip in and help…Before lock down we had domestic help. We now have to do all cleaning, washing etc. We are both still working full time from home. And doing home schooling.” – Melody, Newlands

Women’s burden

While many of our respondents have seen changes for the better in terms of the distribution of workload in the home, a large number of diarists still note that it is women who are ultimately responsible for household chores.

Luyolo in Khayelitsha explains, ‘My sisters do the house chores and it hasn’t changed‘ and Gift explains the chores are done by, ‘My mother and my sister as always, they like to do them so they don’t bother to ask anyone to do them’. While Ameena’s son, in an occupation in Woodstock, makes his own bed, it is the mother’s duty to clean, wash, cook and do the laundry. She notes that her ‘ younger sister normally cleans the kitchen’. Judy in Newlands has stepped back from her work to ‘ home school, cook and clean…My husband will occasionally step in and do a bit of “deep cleaning” but it’s not regular or per a schedule‘.

“My household chores have definitely changed. It’s more intense as my mom has managed to get a job during lock down. And being the only child, I am compelled to help where I can. My dad keeps busy out in the garage, with painting and the dogs. I keep busy with sweeping, making both my bed and my parents’ bed. I do the dishes and tidy here and there…This will take the load off her as I cannot expect her to do what I could have done. Although this goes against how I feel about the role of a woman in the house. My dad is extremely patriarchal.” – Nicole, Lavender Hill

Ntsiki, from an occupation in Tamboeskloof, explains how her partner initially stepped in and helped with chores but ‘apparently its too much work now‘. Tiffany, in suburban Salt River, is currently not working, and her fiancé is paying her half of the rent and has ‘made it clear that doing the chores is ‘the least I can do…Maybe if he wasn’t an essential worker, he would be cleaning after himself? I don’t know about that as he is off weekends and doesn’t do anything then either‘.

Talking to our diarists about household chores raises several questions:

Given that crisis can serve as a catalyst for positive and negative change, how can we create conditions that encourage and cement positive change?

If working from home becomes a reality for more families in the long term, might this have a long-term impact on the burden of responsibility for housework?

Is the role of domestic workers now being more fully appreciated? Will this have an impact upon their struggles for better labour conditions and pay?


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