Exploring white privilege: Guest Posting at Irresistibly Fish

Brett Fish has some great conversations about white privilege happening over at his blog, you should definitely check it out! One of the big things that is coming out of my research is that a key catalyst for helping white people in South Africa move from a position of apathy (or an inability to even “see” racial privilege) to being active about racial justice is other white people who challenged them to start thinking differently. Which is why what Brett is doing is awesome. So if you’re curious, skeptical, or if you are already passionate about racial justice and want to learn more, head over! (Recently on Irresistibly Fish, Nkosi shared some of his views on what white people can do to help make South Africa a more just society, sparking a great conversation. And oh, one of them was pay your domestic helper a living wage… that sound’s familiar? :D) 

As a lot of the white privilege literature and conversation comes from an American context, I shared a few ramblings about what I have noticed in the South African context– the biggest thing being our perception of loss can blind us as white people to the privilege that still exists for us in this country… but that doesn’t change the fact that we are privileged. Here’s the start,

I’m a target of crime. I have to leave the country in order to find work.  I do not have leaders in government who are my race. When I’m stopped by a cop, they most likely do not look like me. I’m not privileged, I’m a victim.” 

These are some of the sentiments that I’ve heard (explicitly or implicitly) and read as I’ve talked with people about the topic of my master’s research, which includes issues of white privilege. Peggy McIntosh wrote an article called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” where she lists all the unrecognized benefits she has as a white person living in America. At first glance, it’s hard to tell if these benefits come from a history (and present reality) that systematically privileges white people, or if they come from being part of a racial numerical majority. (I mean, obviously she’d be able to find band-aids that match her skin colour, if the majority of people buying band-aids have white skin).

To read the rest of this article, head on over


The Living Wage Project #3

What is the cost of living in Sweetwaters? How much should someone pay a domestic worker who lives in Sweetwaters? 

images-2 Here are some answers. (To download the detailed report, click here: Living Wage) If you’re interested to know more about what a living wage is, go here. To find out why someone should pay a living wage, go here.)

Where did these numbers come from? A focus group of people from iThemba Projects were interviewed. This group was ideal because all the members currently live in Sweetwaters, and they spend most of the day in Sweetwaters as well, working with children and youth and doing home visits. Some also grew up in Sweetwaters. As such, they have a good grasp of the community as a whole, have been in many, many different homes, (therefore have an idea of how the “average family” lives) as well as have first hand experience themselves.  

What categories are included? For this project, we assumed the person was a domestic worker living with a 15, 10 and 5 year old. The wage includes food, housing, utilities, education for the children, health care, transportation, and a miscellaneous category for things like clothes, toothpaste etc. In these categories, it was assumed that this person was living as frugally as possible, was attending free/local schools and clinics, and taking advantage of free government services wherever possible. We assumed their diet was nutritious, but basic (things like cabbage, pap, and only cheap meat twice a week). This worked out the basic survival wage. Then we added in an amount to go towards breaking the family out of the cycle of poverty, and this number was based on the cost of four UNISA modules per year, and this gave us the living wage. This is not assuming the domestic worker is going to private healthcare, government schools in Hilton, or shopping at Woolworths. (Download the full detailed report to see exactly how the amount for each category was calculated. I think you’ll be surprised to see how conservatively we estimated the amount for these categories). 

What categories are not included? Many things that a middle class family takes for granted, such as the ability to save for retirement, a house, or a rainy day. It does not include money for holidays or non-essential travel. It assumes only 2 days of work missed for sickness, and no vacation days. No maternity leave, costs associated with babies, birthday presents, a tithe, gifts, life insurance, and funeral cover are included.

How was the wage calculated? It was assumed this domestic worker travelled in to work each day (taking only one taxi- many people in this area have to take two), and we assumed 20 work days each month. (i.e.: this is not a “live-in” domestic worker). To download a full report with explanations of where numbers came from, and the complete breakdown of costs in each category, click hereLiving Wage. To download a spreadsheet that will allow you to play with the numbers and see how costs would change by including more categories or omitting some, click hereLiving Wage Estimate Tool. Our results found that:

In order to take home a living wage each month, the employer needs to pay R3606/month or R180/day. 

What if I don’t live in Hilton and my domestic worker does not live in Sweetwaters? How accurate is this number then? Sweetwaters is a semi-rural township outside Pietermaritzburg, therefore the cost of living is lower than someone who lives in a big city like Joburg or Capetown. This is why we’ve included both the full report that shows where we got the numbers from, as well as a downloadable excel tool that will allow you to change/adapt for your context. If you live in a totally different context than the one which we live in, sit down and ask your domestic worker about some of these categories- like, “How much does it cost to take a taxi in this area? How far away is the nearest free government clinic?” etc. — find out the particulars and work out the cost of living in your area.

As I mentioned before, this family in Joburg worked out a living wage for their domestic worker would be, and it is definitely higher than ours. However, we wanted to come up with a figure that was based on the average cost of living in Sweetwaters, and not necessarily specific to each and every particular case (for example we took an average number of children, and an average situation). We did not find out the costs for a person to live in Sweetwaters at a very high standard of living– we found out how the average family  lives– so by paying your domestic worker this amount, you’re not necessarily paying them an amount that will put them buying organic produce from Woolworths like you do. This means there is room for you to go above and beyond this wage– however, we wanted to work out what the bare minimum you should consider paying your domestic worker should be if you want to be paying a living wage.

And if you now have a million questions like: How could I ever afford this? What should I do now?! Stay tuned for a bonus part four! 🙂 

Also, please consider sharing this post with friends and colleagues. So much of what we pay our domestic workers is not based on concrete research but just a gut feeling that we should pay more than minimum wage. It would be fantastic if our community could be known as a place where the people we employ are given a living wage. This is a really practical concrete way we can do something to move our country forward, and help people break out of the cycle of poverty.

If you have any questions or comments- send us feedback! Either comment below on this post, or email the authors at: ann.ebert.oneill(at)gmail.com or steph.ebert17(at)gmail.com

The Living Wage Project #2. Why?

Remember those happy world cup feelings? Don't we want those feelings to last? Living wage, people.

Remember those happy world cup feelings? Don’t we want those feelings to last? Living wage, people.

So I kind of gave myself away in the previous post with some of the reasons why as employers we should pay a living wage. But here they are:

1. It lowers the crime rate. Forget all the “be a nice person” reasons. South Africa has one of the highest inequality ratios between the rich and the poor. And research has shown that the higher the inequality in a country, the higher the violent crime, and the worse off the entire country. And it’s not always that poor people are murdering rich people– rather, the inequality creates a system of frustration– people see the extreme wealth of others, and see there is no way for them to break out of their extreme poverty, and this leads to feelings of futility (why should I even work? There’s no way I’ll ever break out of this!) frustration, anger, and jealousy, and this can lead to a higher level of spousal abuse, violence, aggression and crime. So if you want to see crime go down– pay people a living wage.

2. It helps people break out of poverty, which helps the whole economy. We don’t want to be a country of street sweepers and gardeners (not that there is anything wrong with people who do that work– it’s valuable and needed!) But if we want to be a country that leads the way in terms of technology, science, the arts, we need people who are educated–which is one reason why you should pay someone a living wage and not just minimum wage. Further, there’s this basic economic principle that when people have money, they buy more stuff. When people can buy more stuff, more stuff can be produced (creating more jobs).

3. It’s right. Guys, we want to be able to go to bed at night and know that we are not exploiting our workers. Imagine when someone asks you what you pay your domestic worker that you don’t have to drown that shameful feeling by creating a long list of justifications, “I pay them x amount, but we also pay for one of the granddaughter’s school fees”. You can happily share what you pay, with the confidence that it is based on solid research, and your domestic worker is not being exploited.

4. God wants us to pay people justly. Our small group at church read “Generous Justice” by Tim Keller. One of the things this book showed is that all throughout scripture, God commands not only charity, but just wages, and empowerment for the poor as well. So the biblical commands in the Old Testament were not just to give money to the temple for the poor (which is a command, by the way) but also to pay your workers justly, and make sure there was provision for the poor to help themselves. As a concrete example, God told farmers not to harvest to the edges of their fields, but to leave the corners unharvested, so the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and those who had no means of income could come and harvest the extra for themselves. That meant that the farmer could not squeeze maximum profit from his field, and then give some of his income to charity and call it good. It meant that there was a provision for the poor that wasn’t demeaning, or creating dependency (the poor had to actually harvest it!) In today’s society, not many of us are farmers. So what does it look like to put this principle into practice? One way is paying your domestic worker a living wage– even if legally you have a “right” to pay them less, by paying them a living wage, you are giving them the opportunity to provide for themselves and their family and hopefully have a chance at breaking out of poverty. (Jesus and Paul talk about these ideas as well, but this is just one concrete example).

5. Here’s how a South African Christian in Joburg who is now paying a living wage put it:

“I searched through the Scriptures, looking in the concordance for words like wage, labour, work, worker, employer and exploitation. What I discovered was eye opening and left me deeply convicted. Throughout Scripture, the onus for setting wages is the responsibility of the employer and Scripture repeatedly warns against those who exploit workers. One Scripture which stood out to me was Isaiah 58. The context for this text is set in verse 3, which says “you live with your pleasures while you exploit your workers”. The text then goes on to talk about five areas: 1) Food (“feed the hungry”); 2) Shelter (“provide the poor wanderer with shelter”); 3) Clothing (“clothe the naked”); 4) Basic needs (“satisfy the needs of the oppressed”); and 5) Things that will break the cycle of poverty (“untie the cords of the yoke”). As I looked at these five areas, I realised that unless the wages that I paid were providing for all five of these areas, I was exploiting my worker. I realised that I had been setting wages based on norms of what others paid and not on what was right.”

And now… given all of that– what IS a living wage for someone in Sweetwaters? Check out part three.

For part one “What is a living wage?” check out my previous post.

The Living Wage Project. #1. What?

Come on, South Africa! Let's start paying a living wage. :)

Come on, South Africa! Let’s start paying a living wage. 🙂

When my sister-in-law came out here for three months she set herself the personal project of researching what a living wage for a person in Sweetwaters would be. (She’s an awesome researcher. You know, because she doesn’t have enough to do working on her PhD, she just sets herself personal research projects like this. Impressive). And yes, we found the magic number. So I’m going to be sharing her findings on my blog– but first, I’d like to take a few posts to explain what a living wage is, and why it’s even important as employers to pay people a living wage.


A living wage is one that meets a family’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, transportation) but also includes some income to build wealth, perhaps an opportunity to slowly build cash savings for a house, or an education to upskill themselves or someone in their family.

This is different from minimum wage. Minimum wage is the legal amount set by the government that you have to pay someone or you are breaking the law. Notice that it’s the minimum. In other words, you are a criminal if you’re paying someone less. The minimum wage set by law for domestic workers is about R65 per day ($6.50, for my American friends).

Now, thankfully, most employers in Hilton pay their domestic workers (and gardeners, and nannies) more than minimum wage. So Hiltonians, we can breathe a sigh of relief because we’re not doing anything illegal. In fact, I think most of us like to pat ourselves on the back because we’re going “above and beyond” the minimum wage and paying… well, at least as much as what our friends pay. And sometimes more, to make ourselves feel better. But we always have this guilty feeling like, “Am I paying enough?” because– let’s face it, we have no clue what it costs to live in Sweetwaters, but we assume it must be a lot less than what it costs to live in Hilton.

A survival wage is a wage that is enough money to cover all the basic essentials that someone needs to survive. It means you’re paying someone enough to eat, have shelter, get where they need to go (for food, work and school), and educate their children. Paying minimum wage means you can’t be taken to court in South Africa for breaking the law, but if you’re not paying someone enough to survive, than that’s still not okay (and as a sneak preview, R65/day is not really enough to cover the basic essentials of life in Sweetwaters).

A living wage is a slight step up from that. It’s something that allows a person to make choices. In other words, if literally every cent you earn is marked for food or school fees or taxi fare to get to work, you have no money on hand when there is an emergency, no money to save up, no money to help your kids get further (or better) education– in other words, there is no way you can break out of poverty.  I think we have this idea that if anyone works hard and saves up, they can become anything they want to be. Well. You can’t. Because what if you literally have no money to save up? What if you’re the brightest student in your high school, but there’s absolutely no money at home and so you can’t get a university degree? (Side note: Although unemployment rates in South Africa are extremely high (like, at least 25% with conservative estimates) the unemployment rate among those with university degrees is 1%. Getting a university degree is literally a guarantee that you’ll be employed). 

A living wage is empowering. So maybe you give your domestic worker extra clothes your kids don’t need, or pass on your old text books, or even pay school fees for her kids. That’s great! Don’t stop! But paying a living wage is something that can help to break the generational cycle of poverty in a non-paternalistic way (i.e., think handouts that can actually perpetuate poverty and dependency).

I mean, I don’t go to my boss and ask for his old clothes or take his unwanted appliances home. I don’t have to ask to borrow money from my boss in a crisis. My boss assumes that he’s giving me a salary and if I want something, I have the ability to save and manage my money. I have that freedom- which is dignifying and which honors my humanity. 

Check out part 2 to see why I think it’s important to pay a living wage. 


The Hewitt family who lived in the township of Mamelodi for a month, on the same wages as those in the township.

Here is a really good article to read about how to listen from a position of privilege, from Christena Cleveland’s blog. I challenge you to read it and think about how you are privileged either because you belong to the dominant culture, race, religion, or gender in society, and how you can be a better listener.  I was really challenged by her advice on listening well before jumping in to fix things. I’d say that advice applies to me in most contexts–marriage, the work-place–but most especially when I’m in a position of privilege.

Here’s an excerpt:

“In the two years that I’ve lived in my predominantly black, low income neighborhood in Minneapolis, I’ve seen dozens of teams of privileged folks come in and try to fix a glaring problem without taking the time to build solidarity with the great people in my neighborhood.  Typically, within months the good-intentioned privileged folks retreat back to their privileged spaces, leaving behind a devastating trail of benevolent classism and racism.[i] Last summer, a few kids on my block told me that they don’t trust the white people who come into our neighborhood because they “don’t understand us and they always leave soon anyway.”

If Christian privileged people aren’t careful, their problem-solving heroics can easily dishonor the image of God in oppressed people. Most obviously, this occurs when privileged people bypass the crucial stage of “weep with those who weep” listening. This type of listening requires the privileged people to stand in paradigm-shifting, time-consuming and uncomfortable solidarity with oppressed people. Instead, they go straight to the “Let me solve your problem for you” type of non-listening.

For the rest of the article, click here.

Recently I read an article about a white family here in South Africa who visited the township where their “domestic worker” lived. They stayed there (with their two children, under the age of 5)  for a month, living in a small one-room house in her neighborhood. Many people criticized what they did, saying it was just poverty tourism. But others (including many in the community) expressed appreciation that a white person  was coming to understand how they lived, and to live with them. Apparently one day when visiting a tavern to watch a soccer match, one man started quoting Nelson Mandela’s “from the dock” speech (“ I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”)

I still don’t know what I think about it. On the one hand, their actions increased their empathy, their sense of solidarity and their understanding of the kind of life their domestic worker (and many, many other South Africans) live. And they were there for a whole month, which isn’t just a vacation. But on the other hand, after a month they went back to their nice house with a swimming pool, and their domestic worker stayed in the township. It reminds me of all the pros and cons of short-term missions, but on a local scale.

But I think it was a good thing. I think it was a good thing because unlike short-term missions (which are glamorous, and international and cost lots of money) this family was going somewhere where they had an established relationship already, and they were going with the intention to listen and learn. Most white people here have the privilege of living in places where they are in the majority (weird, huh, when we are only 10% of the population in this country??)–but our money and our social networks mean that this slice of the “rainbow nation” can live separately. Some people have never even set foot in a township. And while some may have driven through, not very many have spent any significant amount of time there. And if they have, it’s usually been in the “let’s fix and save everything” capacity, not the listen and learn capacity. I think especially in our country, we need more people doing this kind of thing–really learning, really listening–from people who are privileged.

I would go further and say, though, that after listening well, action does need to be taken. Not necessarily action that is a quick fix for superficial problems that let us go back to our comfy lives  (as mentioned in the Cleveland article). But hopefully action that is birthed out of solidarity and understanding and that means our lives are changing and getting uncomfortable, too. Hopefully after listening in solidarity, privileged people’s actions will result in choices that can change systems of injustice, even if it comes at personal cost. (Like this family who pay their domestic worker a living wage, even though it means they are cutting back on their spending to do so). The cool thing is that the Hewitts don’t seem like they are just going to go back and live their lives the same way. And I think that’s why they’ve received so much back-lash from others…because people don’t want to really listen because they are afraid of what they might learn.

In what contexts can you listen better in this week?

  • Praise God for a wonderful and productive time with Rachel and David. They were both so encouraging, and produce great work!
  • Pray for our holiday club– training day for our 9 Hilton highschoolers who are helping is on Saturday, and the club is next Weds to Friday.