“The institution of domestic service itself constitutes apartheid’s Deep South,” Jacklyn Cock, a sociologist, wrote in “Maids and Madams,” a study published in 1980. “It is the crudest, and most hidden, expression of inequality in this society.”
Only in 2002 did the government introduce a minimum wage for domestic workers. The current minimum is the equivalent of $1.34 per hour but is often undercut, particularly for migrant workers from other African states.
Myrtle Michels was born on Aug. 31, 1947, in the small town of Genadendal, east of Cape Town, the location of one of South Africa’s oldest Christian mission stations. Her mother, Maria, was a cook, and her father, Johannes, was a carpenter.
She married Cedric Francois Witbooi, an electrical technician, in 1973. Their marriage broke up in the 1980s, she said, because of her time-consuming work as a union shop steward in a factory after she left domestic employment. Mr. Witbooi died around 20 years ago, according to Dr. Fish.
Ms. Witbooi is survived by three children, Jacqui Michels, Linda Johnson and Peter Witbooi, and three grandchildren.
The most difficult part of her job, she once said, was the strain on her family.
“What makes us hurt is being separated from our children,” she said. “It is also like you feel that you don’t belong anywhere, even amongst your own people.”
At times, her union work was hampered by financial and organizational challenges. The South African Domestic Workers Union dissolved in 1996, succumbing to “financial difficulties and disagreements among the leadership,” Debbie Budlender, an author and researcher at the University of Cape Town, wrote in a paper for the International Labor Office in Geneva in 2016.