Defend Truth


Rethinking physical labour as thinking work


Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

The sight of construction workers at work leaves me in awe of what human hands can do. Every magnificent building I see makes me think of the black hands that built it. The same calloused hands that construct skyscrapers out of bricks and mortar are attached to minds that most of society considers unthinking.

Years ago, my cousin, who is a construction worker, once revealed his wages per week on a sizeable commercial building project. My jaw was agape. As a very junior lawyer, I made what he made in a week in less than an hour. His wages reveal what the world thinks of physical work: not very much.

Both my grandmothers undertook physical work as domestic workers. My grandfather was a messenger at a law firm, among various jobs he held over his life. We were taught to think that certain jobs were unthinking because they were reserved for us black people. Even today, little respect is held for these jobs because of the gender and colour of the people who perform them.

Until the Constitutional Court’s intervention last year, the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act did not include domestic workers within its definition of “employee”. If they were not employees, what were they? Mules? Racism continues to live through the racialised nature of physical work today, in who is expected to be the security guard, the domestic worker, the construction worker, waitress and street cleaner.  

To truly be a progressive society, we cannot not simply open up “thinking jobs” to all people; we also have to open up our thinking to the value of work that entails immense physical labour. To undo the thinking ingrained in us by apartheid that the people who should be unbelieved, unseen, unheard and unvalued are those in overalls or pinafores.

I always felt that what my grandparents did for a living was at odds with the brilliance I experienced at home as they helped problem-solve our domestic challenges, resolve community disputes, map out our futures and make complex economic calculations of raising big families on minimum wage. But what I did not realise was that their work was not just physically demanding but also required intelligence, ingenuity, creativity and skilful negotiation to navigate.

Lately, I have been digging into the work of the late Mike Rose, who was an education researcher. His book The Mind at Work challenged the beliefs that I subscribed to when thinking of manual labour. I was raised to look up to “thinking” professions such as medicine, law, accounting and engineering.

Rose states that by witnessing his parents perform physical work, he would later come to understand the dynamics of occupational status and social class, but could sense early on how difficult the work was and that without it, his family would have starved.

He also saw that people knew things and gained knowledge through this work. Through their physical work, my grandparents gained insights from which our community and I benefited.

My maternal grandmother worked as a domestic worker for Jean Sinclair, the co-founder of the anti-apartheid movement Black Sash, and worked for her daughter, Sheena Duncan, also a leader of the Black Sash.  

When the Duncans moved to London, so did my grandmother. I cannot imagine what my grandmother learnt during her time with the Sinclairs and the Duncans about politics and the world, and I can’t imagine what they learnt about politics and the world from my grandmother. When none of her family or community members had travelled overseas, I wonder what my grandmother learnt through her work and travels.

I wonder which activists and icons my grandmother received and took care of as part of her job. I wonder if Jean or Sheila ever deferred to my grandmother for her opinion on political matters. My grandmother was not just a maid. She did not do unthinking work. There is no such thing as purely physical work. My mom tells me my grandmother knew what to cook and set the menu for the Sinclairs and Duncans. What could she have taught about food, politics and diplomacy?  

Rose writes that simply characterising work as physical or thinking work “reaffirms long-standing biases about particular occupations and cause us to miss so much: the mental processes that enable service. The aesthetics of physical labour. The complex interplay of the social and the mechanical. The choreography of hand, eye, ear, brain. The ever-presence of abstraction, planning, and problem-solving in everyday work.”  

Rose says: “Work reminds us that there is giftedness in every occupation. All jobs require judgment, skill and instinct.”  

Next time you are in the presence of a domestic worker, construction worker, waitress or security guard, do you only see their hands or do you, in the words of Rose, see the thought behind the eye, the mind at work, the link between hand and brain and the values between thought and action? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Son of Man says:

    This articles evades, not misses, aspects of life like value and scarcity. I know brilliant people who earn very little because they don’t have a piece of paper that says Bcomm, Mcomm or whatever. When you pay someone a small amount of money, it’s based on comparison of prices elsewhere, not how I feel. This article somehow insinuates that physical work or those who do it are frowned upon by those who earn more based on how much we pay; that’s a socio-liberal view, and an unfair one at that. I can get a domestic worker for a dime a dozen; must I now pay a dollar a dozen because they have brains, just because I’m a nice guy?

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