Masterchef South Africa viewers root for domestic-worker contestant


She dazzled with a dauntingly elaborate chocolate dessert, then captivated with a tricky polenta lasagne with fried mushrooms and mussels. Now Siphokazi Mdlankomo is just two rounds away from winning the South African version of Masterchef and has viewers rooting for her, not only because of how she cooks.

Mdlankomo is a domestic worker, a section of society that rarely features in the limelight but, like miners and farm labourers, are still a crucial part of the post-apartheid economy. An estimated one in six working women in South Africa is a housekeeper or nanny, the majority of them black and working for a white employer, although the number of black employers is growing.

Mdlankomo, who grew up in a small rural village in Eastern Cape province with her mother, grandmother and three brothers, has been credited with raising the profile of this forgotten army of more than a million workers through her success on national television. She will take on a former advertising executive, train-driving assistant and life skills lecturer in the penultimate episode of Masterchef SA on Thursday.

The 39-year-old says she has never felt different from her mostly middle class competitors on the show. “I didn’t [feel different] because my job doesn’t make me who I am, and I am totally supported by the family I work for,” she said on Tuesday. “We all love cooking so besides us sharing that passion we all treat each other equally.”

Many domestic workers rise before dawn to commute in minibus taxis to the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities. They often clean the toilets, iron the clothes and help raise the children of the middle class. On Monday the minimum wage for domestic workers in cities rose to 2,065.47 rand (£119) per month.

Mdlankomo hopes others domestic workers see her as an inspiration. “Being a domestic worker is just like any other job, which you should be proud of doing. It is a profession from which you earn your income. There are many domestic workers out there, who like me, have hidden secrets, talents and passion. No job should prevent you from following your dream.”

She has been with her employer, Liz Andreasen, in a well-off suburb of Cape Town for nine years and they often cook together. Last weekend, they served lunch for 12 family members and friends, including a hot caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and homemade pesto, parma ham and melon followed by pot roast chicken with seasonal hot vegetables and crispy roast potatoes.

Asked if domestic workers are too often ignored and under-represented, Mdlankomo replied: “They used to be but I don’t think so anymore. My experience in the family that I work for has been incredible and I will never stop being in contact with them and Liz and I may even do something together in the future.”

Andreasen agreed: “I think that historically that could have been the case. However the mindset of South Africans is changing daily with the advent of cooking programmes, social media and the like. If we look at the situation in our household, Siphokazi is treated in a professional manner as in the case of any other employee who works for us.”

A glance at social media reveals how Mdlankomo’s run also has many viewers willing to her win. Ingrid Engelbrecht, a spokeswoman for Masterchef SA, now in its third year on the M-Net channel, said: “People have loved her from the start. It’s an inspirational story.

“Many people have domestic workers who are considered part of the family, but domestic workers have never been showcased on television. Siphokazi’s story is the same as millions in South Africa who are raising a family and cooking for a family along with their own. Many people have been thrilled to see her on TV and doing so well.”

But Eusebius McKaiser, an author, broadcaster and political commentator, warned against complacency. “One reason why we shouldn’t be over-excited is you can get swept up supporting from your couch in Sandton [a wealthy suburb] but it doesn’t mean your relationship with domestic workers is being interrogated,” he said.

Female members of South Africa’s third biggest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, have worn the typical domestic worker uniform of knee-length dresses with aprons to parliament in a symbolic gesture for labour rights. Male members of the party have worn mineworkers’ helmets.

McKaiser added: “Domestic workers are right up there with farm workers as the most visible part of the labour relations that speak to the worst part of our past. They are badly treated and often underpaid.

“The fundamental structure of them being treated with indignity and their labour rights not being respected hasn’t changed. Many of the ’madams’ now are black but, if you ask the domestic workers, their opinions are the same.”

Source: The Guardian 2 December 2014