The 9th Annual Public Interest Law Gathering (PILG) was hosted at the University of the Witwatersrand on Thursday, 31 October and Friday, 1 November 2019. Each year PILG brings together public interest litigation organisations and practitioners, legal academics, social movement leaders and students in an effort to deepen discussion and encourage collaboration amongst human rights and public interest litigation organisations. The theme for PILG 2019 was “Women in Leadership Transforming the Public Interest Law Sector”. The keynote speakers were Professor Pumla Gqola (Fort Hare University), Nicolette Naylor (Ford Foundation), who spoke on the first day and Professor Nomboniso Gasa (University of Cape Town) who spoke on the second day.
Professor Gqola gave the opening keynote address in which she discussed some of the tensions that feminism and social justice movements on the Left have to grapple with. These included the enduring nature of institutions, the increasing onslaught on solidarity in the fight against sexual harassment and rape and the dangers that cancel culture pose for building solidarity across movements.
SERI senior attorney Zamantungwa Khumalo and SERI researcher Kelebogile Khunou spoke on a panel on ‘(In)access to land and housing: A focus on gender and sexual orientation’ hosted on the first day of the gathering. They were joined by Thiyane Duda (Land and Accountability Research Centre) and Musa Gwebani (Social Justice Coalition) and the panel was chaired by Ndifuna Ukwazi’s Mandisa Shandu and Maxine Bezuidenhout.
Kelebogile Khunou’s presentation reflected on the negative impact that a lack of access to affordable, well‑located housing has on domestic workers. She argued that while some domestic workers choose to ‘live out’, often at a significant cost of transport to and from work, many domestic workers who cannot afford that cost are forced to ‘live in’ at their places of employment. This form of accommodation is usually substandard, very small and controlled by rules that are often discriminatory and paternalistic. Khunou argued that the lack of affordable and well‑located housing leaves these domestic workers vulnerable to very particular forms of abuse and mistreatment.
SERI also hosted a panel on ‘Domestic Workers Realising their Rights’ on which the speakers included Wits Professor Shireen Ally, Eunice Dhladhla (South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union), Maggie Mthombeni (Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance) and Amanda Duma (SERI). The panel was chaired by Kelebogile Khunou.
Professor Ally’s presentation historicised and contextualised the struggle of domestic workers in South Africa dating back to the period of slavery in the Cape. Ally also pointed to the need for the struggle for domestic workers' rights to seek solutions and rely on strategies that do not depend on the role of the state in mediating the relationship between domestic workers and their employers. Eunice Dhladhla reflected on the history of SADSAWU and the work that they have done to organise domestic workers and mediate disputes between domestic workers and employers.
Maggie Mthombeni discussed some of the main challenges that domestic workers continue to face, particularly in light of the uneven power dynamics that negatively affect their ability to effectively communicate and negotiate the terms of their employment. She also reflected on Izwi’s progress to better organise domestic workers through the use of neighbourhood groups, and the use of WhatsApp as an information-sharing platform that also assists with breaking the isolation experienced by domestic workers.
Amanda Duma discussed the Mahlangu case in which SERI represents Sylvia Mahlangu, the surviving daughter of a domestic worker, Maria Mahlangu who died at her employer’s home during the course of her employment. Sylvia Mahlangu and SADSAWU successfully challenged the constitutionality of section 1 (xix)(v) of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act 130 of 1993 (COIDA) which excludes domestic workers from protection. Duma also discussed the significance of ruling on the retrospective application of invalidity, allowing Sylvia to claim for relief.