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Musings

The House That Sexism Built

Lookout Beach
Source: Plett Tourism

One of the many pleasures of living on the Garden Route is access to miles and miles of gorgeous, pristine coastline. The beauty of the Eden District cannot be adequately described with words. It is exquisite, yet does not come without its flaws. As anyone who has lived here for any stretch of time, one of its pains is navigating the mercurial housing market. It’s the price that this corner of paradise exacts from us residents. There are few long-term rental options in Plettenberg Bay, and as a consequence, an annual migration is required of the majority of its residents. This usually happens in December when wealthy landlords return to while away the mild summers in their fabulous and comfortably furnished homes.

I’ve grown weary of this life. So:

Our family will be leaving Plettenberg Bay in a few weeks and relocating to a more plebian part of the Garden Route: George. The city has all of the conveniences of a modern city, but none of Plett’s charms. In fact, we’ve been reliably informed that we’re going to hate living in George and miss Plett more than we could ever imagine. I’m willing to take that risk, as it includes easy access to the movie theater (the only one within 60 miles of our current address), an airport with connections to international flights and outdoor entertainment venues, museums and decent shopping. Not to mention, the house that we’re moving into has striking charm.

According to the agent, our new rental was built a century ago – something evident from the building’s worn facade to its dated appliances. It’s a Dutch-settler style home with a massive indoor brick braai and expansive backyard. All of these features appeal to my sense of home, but what pleases me most is the idea that a century ago – when the final cornerstone was laid – the Afrikaners who constructed it never imagined that a Black family would have full occupancy of this house. Muahahahaaa….

Anyways.

Over the previous two years as residents of Plett, we’ve become accustomed to taking whatever home was available to us, whether it met our family’s idea of comfort, practicality or not. If it was in our price range and had a roof, we opted in. The market is that competitive. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. Now that we can be a little choosier in our search, I’ve taken the time to really look into the finer details of the homes that are on the market; and come away with some interesting discoveries about South Africa’s architecture.

When we first moved here, I was struck by the presence of a scullery in every home. Open floor plans where the kitchen serves as the heart of the home, rather than its anus (indispensable, yet hidden) has been the hallmark of modern American architecture. Here, the scullery is a separate room where the drudgery of kitchen work takes place, away from view of family and/or visitors. In hiding it, there’s no impetus for a friend to pitch in and help with clean up. And why should they? The maid/domestic would get to it at the beginning of her next shift. It was months before I could reconcile that notion when I first arrived.

“Just leave it. The domestic will get to it.”

In every home we’ve lived in (4 so far), all of the accommodations for cleaning, doing laundry, etc. have been built either as far as possible from the living space or physically outside of it. Each of those rooms has been small, cramped and about as comfortable as the commode in Economy Po’ Class. In our current facilities, the washing machine sits in a small, gecko infested room adjacent to the garage. Of the three houses that we looked at before settling on the Dutch-settler, two had no washing machine facilities at all and all had minuscule kitchens. However, all three had enormous garages and impressive braai (outdoor grilling) facilities. In short, these houses were constructed with the comfort of one particular person in mind – and that person was neither Black nor female. It’s beyond astonishing.

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised. Though whites constitute 9.1% of South Africa’s population, 47% of land is privately owned by the same demographic. (Source: www.economists.co.za) And as the country grapples with the aftershocks of apartheid where communities are still segregated by race and/or income, it makes “sense” that architecture and construction still model a bygone era. Men don’t have to think about where or how their laundry gets done or their dishes get washed. It just gets done. Given that both fields remain dominated by men, the results are that I and other women (usually of color) responsible for the more mundane aspects of household life will be subjected to the inconvenience of walking the distance of a half a mile (and yes, I’ve checked) in order to present our families with the gift of fresh panties and sheets. I believe that because men do not traditionally participate in this sort of work, the spaces where domestic work occurs are nothing less than oppressive and little more than an afterthought.

 But, hey! There’s a bright side. Maybe I can look forward to more freshly grilled burger for my troubles.

 

Have a look around your home. Who do reckon the architect had in mind at the drafting table? If there are any South African architects reading today, I’d love for you to tell me why/how my observations are wrong.

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