Nomagugu Sibanda is a nanny and housekeeper on SmartMaid an on-demand app for home services that launched in mid-2020. She is from Zimbabwe and currently works in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Migrants from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia often have limited documentation, and many find jobs in domestic service. Around 9% of female migrants and 6% of male migrants from these countries work in the sector in South Africa. Some secure live-in roles or work for a single employer, but many work as freelancers or on contracts, taking hourly or daily jobs. On-demand platforms such as SweepSouth and SmartMaid have emerged to link workers with clients. Workers using the apps say they earn on average 3,500 rand a month — more than the 2,600 rand that is typical for traditional contract workers doing similar tasks off the platforms and more than the 3,000 rand minimum monthly wage for full-time domestic workers.

(Note: $1 is approximately 14.40 rand.)

I won’t take any job that costs more than 20 rand [about $1.38] to get to. It’s nice to get work, but I don’t want to spend it all on travel. You have to use your common sense. When I get a booking, I look at the map carefully to see where it is before accepting a request.

Fortunately, I do have regular bookings. I have a client who’s booked me every Tuesday and Saturday. So, I know that I will have some work every week. They pay me through SmartMaid, which helps me to budget because I know what money is coming to my account. I do take random bookings as well. They pay better — 100 rand an hour, and they’re usually for a few hours. Regular bookings pay between 300 and 350 rand for a full day.

When I’m at my regular weekly client, I still check my phone for new requests. My client is based in Melrose Arch, and so, while I’m in the area, I like to go online and see if there might be other bookings. I was there yesterday, and at about 2 p.m., I got a message asking if I could go nearby to a client in Bramley. I messaged him via the app and said I was in the area but not yet finished with my work for the day. Luckily, he said, no problem, I can come the following day. He made a booking for 9 a.m.

I left Joburg at 8:15 a.m. to go to Bramley. The taxi cost 12 rand. I usually wear my SmartMaid T-shirt when I leave the house, so I don’t need to change before I start work. But I do keep a spare T-shirt in my handbag, in case I want to wear something clean when I’m going back home. I prefer to wear just a normal skirt and a T-shirt, so I’m comfortable when I’m working. 

When I got there, the client told me he wanted me to clean but not do any laundry. His house was big, and he had a lot of rules — he was worried about Covid-19 and said I had to make sure I didn’t make him sick. I had to sanitize my hands regularly. 

When I work, I don’t like to play music on my phone or have the TV on in the background. I like silence. Sometimes I will sing softly while I work. Some clients will leave their TV on for me, but I will switch it off.

“I like that I can make my own choices and manage my own time. It feels like I’m working for myself.”

With this sort of work, it’s not just about cleaning. You have to make sure your client is happy with you. I try to learn what clients prefer. I also try to see their mood. I try to figure out how they would want something done, not just do what they want done. But I also make sure I mind my own business. There are clients I have who are two young men. I have seen so many different girls at their place but will never say anything. I don’t even greet the girls; I just keep quiet and mind my own business. 

Because I could tell that the Bramley client was big on hygiene, I even took my shoes off when I went to clean the bedrooms. He had carpets. I also did his ironing and changed the bedding. After I’d finished everything, the client told me to rake his garden. The booking had been just for cleaning, not gardening. I decided I’d do it — but I told myself that if he booked me again, then next time I would tell him, No, my work doesn’t include the garden. I’m glad I did this, because when I left, he said he would book me again. And he did.

I finished work there around 1 p.m. He was going to pay me cash but then didn’t want to use all the cash he had on him. So, he ended up paying me via e-wallet. I withdrew the money on my way home. When I get paid in cash like this, SmartMaid takes their admin fee from my next booking.

This is the sort of booking that I like. I get paid for more than if I work a full day, and then I still get to go home and spend time with my child. I’ve been on the app for almost a year. Before I was working as a hairdresser. Work there became tough during the lockdown. When a friend told me about the app, I decided to join because I needed work. I still do hairdressing, but when I’m too tired, I don’t switch on the app. Most of the time, when I’ve done a half-day request, I just want to go home. Sometimes though, I’ll check on the app to see if there are any other requests nearby. I like that I can make my own choices and manage my own time. It feels like I’m working for myself.