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 Acclaimed  African Labor Leader dies

By Joseph Green-Bishop
Texas Metro Correspondent

Myrtle Witbooi

One of the leading organizers of South African domestic workers has died. Myrtle Witbooi, who was also an ardent opponent of Apartheid, the racial separation  of different races, died on January 16th in Cape Town. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among her confidants. She was seventy-five years old.

At the time of her death, Ms. Witbooi was active in several organizations that advanced the rights of domestic workers. Ten years ago, she became the first elected president of the International Domestic Worker’s Federation and helped to guide its activities until January of 2023.

Born near Cape Town, Ms. Witbooi became a domestic worker when she was seventeen years old. It was one of the few employment opportunities for Black women in the country. Because of the abuse that she and others  domestics endured in the workplace, Ms. Witbooi suggested that they organize.

In her early days of her work, she recognized the importance of publicity and action. She and a small group of associates, chained themselves to the gates of the South African Parliament building in Cape Town.  The highly publicized protest resulted in productive meetings with government officials.


When Apartheid was official government policy in South Africa, domestics were not allowed to hold  large public  meetings, so they disguised their meetings as church services. Ms. Witbooi once said that South African officials, even after Apartheid was abolished, dismissed the concerns of domestic workers, and showed little concern about their needs. 

Most domestics worked in the homes of their employees six days each week for meager wages. They slept in a small room in the employer’s home or in a small wooden cabin in the yard. What hurt them most, Ms. Witbooi said, was the separation from their family members. They were requested to live alone.

One of the results of Ms. Witbooi’s more than forty years of activism, was the passage  of a minimum wage  law for domestic workers. The legislation was enacted in 2002. It is one of the few such laws on the African continent.

After she left domestic work in the 1980s she became a shop steward and worked in a factory in Cape Town. Ms. Witbooi is survived by her daughters, Linda and Jacqui; and her son, Peter.

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