DomestiCity: Racial Anxiety and Fantasy in the Figure of “The Maid”


African Humanities Program Postdoctoral Fellowships


NRF Chair (Local Histories, Present Realities)


The figure of “the maid” inhabits the edge of a delicate dilemma in the public sphere of contemporary South African cities. Rendered as invisible and unacknowledged, a politics of recognition is prescribed through the potent grammar of “the vulnerable worker.” Yet, against this, South Africans inhabit an aesthetic field that is positively saturated by a radically alterior figure of “the maid.” In the creative literary and visual arts, young black artists such as designer Mary Sibande, photographer Zanele Muholi, and novelist Zukiswa Wanner, and in media as racially varied as Drum Magazine, political cartoons, and white suburban book clubs, the maid is re-mapped as mischievous, sentient beyond injury, racially redemptive, even sublimely beautiful. How do we reconcile an established ethics of solidarity that implores us to empathise with the suffering of the maid, and this burgeoning new aesthetics of imagination that enjoins us to fantasize the maid beyond suffering? This study navigates the intersection of ethics and aesthetics to explore the raced psychic and affective work exposed by the figure of the maid in the highly charged postcolonial public sphere of contemporary South African cities.