The ghost in the house: Women, race, and domesticity in South Africa

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


In South Africa, the house is a haunted place. Apartheid's separate publics also required separate private lives and separate leisures in which to practice ways of living apartheid's ideological partitions into reality. This essay analyzes the compulsive interest in black domesticity that has characterized South Africa since the colonial period and shows that domestic labor in white homes has historically shaped the entry of black women into public space in South Africa. In fact, so strong is the latter association that the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles reveals that in South African English the word maid denotes both black woman and servant. This conflation has generated fraught relations of domesticity, race, and subjectivity in South Africa. Contemporary art about domestic labor by Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande engages with this history. In their art, the house is a place of silences, ghosts, and secrets. Precursors to these recent works can be found in fiction, including Sindiwe Magona's short stories about domestic workers in her collection Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night (1994) and Zoë Wicomb's novel Playing in the Light (2006), in which a woman passing for white allows her mother into her house only under the pretense that she is a family servant. Muholi and Sibande have engaged the legacy of black women in white households by revisiting the ghosts of the house through performance, sculpture, and photography. Both were inspired by the intimate reality of their mothers' experiences as domestic servants, and in both cases the artist's body is central to the pieces, through installations based on body casts, performance, embodied memories, and the themes of haunted absences, abandonment, and longing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)173-188
Number of pages16
JournalCambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


Dive into the research topics of 'The ghost in the house: Women, race, and domesticity in South Africa'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this