Woman at Work
Nicky Newman, photography
Leah Mundell, interviews
The Women’s Platform is a network of refugee and immigrant women’s community groups that provides mutual support, training, and opportunities for small business development. Started in November of 2015, this is a new initiative of the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. Six nationalities are currently represented in the platform, which seeks to be a model for economic and social integration. While some of the member groups are well established and working to grow their businesses or social support efforts, others are just beginning to attract members and create a business plan.
Women at Work documents these efforts. The exhibit includes images by Nicky Newman, a Cape Town-based photographer and video documentarian, and text by Leah Mundell, an anthropologist from Arizona, U.S.A, who interviews members of the Women’s Platform about their experiences and motivations. Quotations are from members of the groups represented here, though not necessarily from the photographed individuals.
For more information or to get involved in the Women’s Platform, please contact program coordinator Emma Carone at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town at (021) 4656433.
“Imagine when you are in a foreign country,
you have no sister, you have no brother… you don’t know where to go,
you don’t know who to speak, you don’t know what to do…
At least we have this group.”
“We are from different countries,
but when we are in the Women’s Platform, we are one.
When we are together, something good will come out.”
Kwesu (Home) provides networking, training, and personal development opportunities for African immigrants, particularly those from Congo. Kwesu runs a sewing collective that offers sewing instruction to 16 students daily at their Parow workshop and currently provides uniforms for the LEAP Science and Maths Schools. They are seeking to expand their business to other local schools and communities and as well as to other African countries, creating opportunities for more women. Kwesu was founded in 2010 by Patricia Mudiayi, now a teacher and leader of social development at LEAP Science and Maths School and recent recipient of the 2015 Mkhaya Migrant Award from the Department of Home Affairs.
“You think that the roads will be paved with gold. Then you realize that they are not. Who is paving them? It’s you.”
“If you know how to do something, you can make money. You learn, you learn, you can make your own business one day.
You can buy bread.”
“When I was in my country with my husband, he was doing everything for us. My children were in good schools, we had a good life, cars and a big house. When we came here everything changed.... I’m working, but what I earn is not enough. We have to eat, I have to pay rent, children have to go to school and everything is depending on me now…. If I didn’t join Kwesu, I wouldn’t find this job. I would still be a domestic worker. I have a degree but I had to clean someone’s house. In my country I had a domestic in my house but when I came here I did the same job…. If I didn’t join the group, I wouldn’t find this job and my friend.”
“I’m just thinking, if this (business) doesn’t work, I can try another plan. If this plan doesn’t work, let me try another plan.”
The Somali women’s group works with the Somali Association of South Africa to support immigrants in learning English, accessing health care, and integrating into the South African community. Their leaders often work as interpreters for Somali women in clinics and at the Department of Home Affairs. They have helped to develop an English school in Bellville and are hoping to open a second school in Strand. Their current project is to open a registered child-care program, to allow mothers of young children to study English at the Bellville school.
“We don’t have funds, we don’t have experience. We need integration with South Africans, white and black, so that we understand each other….
Before, I was scared of my neighbor. But now, I see my neighbor and say, ‘Hi!’ She says, “Hi, how are you?” We know each other.”
“The good jobs that pay well they don’t give to foreigners. They say, ‘Bring your green ID.’ But I won’t lose hope. I’ll keep on trying.”
“Nobody feels safe in South Africa. The security is very bad, even for the locals, everybody. If you see crime, sometimes you will say oh, it’s maybe because I’m a foreigner. But the crime doesn’t choose anybody. You will see a South African come and rob a South African.”
“Our culture says that the women must stay at home and the men go work and bring food to the table. The women, you are supposed to look after the kids. That is why we came together, the woman's group, and we want to change that mentality. Women, you have to stand for yourself and you can at least achieve your goal as the men do.”
The Angolan women’s group has been running a small shop on Voortrekker Road. Originally a food store, the shop used to receive significant foot traffic, but when the nearby Shoprite closed, their walk-in business decreased. The group decided to downsize their store and to diversify the business. Today, they still have a small food shop, but they also provide sewing and tailoring, hair styling, and cell phone services. Ultimately, the group would like to become a true African food market, importing goods that immigrants miss from their home countries.
“When we come here as foreigners, we never have our kind of food, and we find we don’t have the ingredients we need to make our food. We want to open a food market with food from every country.”
The Rwandan group began through a local church and seeks to provide employment and income for women who are not working. Though they ultimately hope to open a salon, they are starting by exploring smaller-scale businesses such as an ice cream or coffee stand. The challenge is that the women who are most engaged in the business planning are employed as domestic or service workers. They feel a responsibility to help those who have not found work – and they are passionate about running a business – but they do not have the time to pursue this dream. In the meantime, those who are unemployed or underemployed continue to seek work wherever they can find it.
“One day when I was fasting, Rebecca [the girl I care for] noticed that I had not eaten. She went and found two rand and gave them to me and said, ‘Please go down and buy yourself something to eat.’ She loves me very much.”
“It is not easy to change life, because when you are a foreigner there are many limits for getting opportunity. For example, when I go (apply for a job), they ask me how long it takes me to go to Durban to renew my permit. They say, how can we give you the job? Every six months you will have an absence of four or five days! …. So it is a difficult one, a big problem you have here.”
“When you look at women, we have too many responsibilities. They have to pay rent, buy food, and they have children. When you see them sitting, you put yourself in their position. They have nothing to support them and you think of what you can do for them. I thought if I can open a project for them, maybe they can get something.”
Members of the Malawian women’s group primarily live near one another in the Heinz Park neighborhood near Phillippi. While some members have found work as domestics, others have struggled to find employment. Instead, they have looked for opportunities to generate their own income. Currently, they bake muffins, cakes, and other goods to sell at the Mitchell’s Plain Town Centre on weekends. They are saving their profits and looking for support to buy a larger oven, so that they can begin catering for civil society organizations and private customers in the city.
“I am doing this because I want experience in business and I want this business to grow.”
“What the group needs for it to be successful is that we need to know our customers and where we are going to sell.
We need equipment like an oven.”
“I want to make maybe a small shop. But sometimes I’m afraid because of security. It’s not a safe place. They can break in, take everything, and you’re back to square one.”
“My experience here in Cape Town is I cannot rely on work; I have to do something because when you are not working you want to do something but you don’t know where to start. South Africa is the right place for business and you just have to push your business forward.”