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At Home with Apartheid

The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg

Rebecca Ginsburg

Publication Year: 2011

Despite their peaceful, bucolic appearance, the tree-lined streets of South African suburbia were no refuge from the racial tensions and indignities of apartheid’s most repressive years. In At Home with Apartheid, Rebecca Ginsburg provides an intimate examination of the cultural landscapes of Johannesburg’s middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods during the height of apartheid (c. 1960-1975) and incorporates recent scholarship on gender, the home, and family.

More subtly but no less significantly than factory floors, squatter camps, prisons, and courtrooms, the homes of white South Africans were sites of important contests between white privilege and black aspiration. Subtle negotiations within the domestic sphere between white, mostly female, householders and their black domestic workers, also primarily women, played out over and around this space. These seemingly mundane, private conflicts were part of larger contemporary struggles between whites and blacks over territory and power.

Ginsburg gives special attention to the distinct social and racial geographies produced by the workers’ detached living quarters, designed by builders and architects as landscape complements to the main houses. Ranch houses, Italianate villas, modernist cubes, and Victorian bungalows filled Johannesburg’s suburbs. What distinguished these neighborhoods from their precedents in the United States or the United Kingdom was the presence of the ubiquitous back rooms and of the African women who inhabited them in these otherwise exclusively white areas.

The author conducted more than seventy-five personal interviews for this book, an approach that sets it apart from other architectural histories. In addition to these oral accounts, Ginsburg draws from plans, drawings, and onsite analysis of the physical properties themselves. While the issues addressed span the disciplines of South African and architectural history, feminist studies, material culture studies, and psychology, the book’s strong narrative, powerful oral histories, and compelling subject matter bring the neighborhoods and residents it examines vividly to life.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

I hope to err neither on the side of thanking too few people nor of thanking too many. Long lists of acknowledgments, while generous, often unintentionally dilute the contributions of those most deserving of recognition. Lists too short can slight and leave the...

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pp. 1-28

Apartheid was good for no one, but there was nobody for whom it was worse than African women. The government’s discriminatory policies weighed more heavily upon them than on any other group, limiting their financial and personal options and leaving...

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One: Getting to Know the Corners

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pp. 29-53

From barren ostrich farms in the Northern Cape, from small Transvaal towns where a person had to step off the sidewalk when a white adult approached, from crowded resettlement camps where the dispossessed squeezed onto the slivers of land...

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Two: The Tempo of Kitchen Life

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pp. 54-89

At the sound of her alarm, Rose—the name she used in the city, since few whites would make even an effort to pronounce Nkululeko— lifted herself from her narrow bed. She groped for the clock to stop the harsh ringing. There, blessed silence, at least for...

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Three: Children and Leaving

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pp. 90-111

Children deserve their own chapter. African or white, present or absent—they, more than anything else, set the stage for a woman’s emotional experience of domestic work and colored the way she regarded the things and scenes around her. The...

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Four: Come in the Dark

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pp. 112-137

Dark, cloudy nights were best. Or those evenings when the moon was so new it appeared as a tiny sliver against the black sky. Wind, too, was good, because howling and the sound of branches scraping on window panes could drown out other...

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Five: House Rules

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pp. 138-163

White South Africans had a problem. Middle-class Johannesburgers depended on African labor to give them practical help and social status by maintaining their homes and looking after them and their families. To do their jobs well, workers needed...

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Six: From Homes with Apartheid

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pp. 164-182

Imagine a middle-class house in the Northern Suburbs in the 1960s. Place nothing extraordinary in the scene, no unusual architectural features or exotic pets or idiosyncratic art hanging on the walls. The house can be either one-story or two-, on...


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pp. 183-196


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pp. 197-216


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pp. 217-230

E-ISBN-13: 9780813931647
E-ISBN-10: 0813931649
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813928883
Print-ISBN-10: 0813928885

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 37 b&w illus., 2 maps
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 785940944
MUSE Marc Record: Download for At Home with Apartheid

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Johannesburg (South Africa) -- Race relations -- 20th century.
  • Johannesburg (South Africa) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Domestic space -- South Africa -- Johannesburg.
  • Women household employees -- South Africa -- Johannesburg.
  • Apartheid -- South Africa -- Johannesburg.
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