South African servants take crash course in 'survival'

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''What is a telegram, and how does it work?''

Julia, a mother of four, waves off the question as too difficult to ponder. And Regina answers with a blank stare.

The teacher of their midafternoon class in suburban Johannesburg offers a follow-up question. ''Does it fly like a bird from one city to another?'' she asks to a roar of laughter from the students.

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As best Lydia can figure it, a telegram is sent by a postal clerk who types out the message, then phones the receiving post office. There, another clerk writes down the message, types it into telegram form, and presents it.

''Why not just phone in the first place?'' the teacher asks. Lydia shrugs.

Lydia, Regina, and Julia are black domestic workers in South Africa. Understanding how to send a telegram, if not the technology of how it works, is a skill all three must master to safely send money home each month - money that is vital to the survival of their families.

First, they must make sense of the appropriate form at the post office. The form bears the daunting label ''requisition for a telegraphic money order.'' That is why telegrams are the subject of today's English literacy class, taught for free to black domestic servants on their day off.

This educational effort is one of the latest additions to a small but ambitious movement to help South Africa's huge population of domestic workers. The movement is made up of a handful of programs with varying objectives, but one general aim: to give these workers a greater sense of independence and self-worth, while improving their economic position.

The English literacy program was founded late last year by Barbara Ledochowski. It is developing materials and teaching techniques for helping domestics learn basic skills of ''survival.''

These skills include how to send money home, how to read road signs, how to take down a telephone message, and even how to begin to understand their own limited legal rights as blacks in ''white'' South Africa.

Domestic workers in South Africa number about 1 million. Most work in urban ''white'' areas where they are considered migrants with rights to remain in the area only as long as they have work contracts. Most live with white families and see their own families only on holidays and weekends. Freedom to go home depends on the generosity of their ''madams'' and logistics and cost of getting to their own homes.

On average, they earn a wage that one expert estimates at 25 cents per hour, not including food and lodging.

Mrs. Ledochowski notes that most domestics are uneducated and have been brought up speaking a native African language. In teaching English, she concluded that rudimentary reading and writing lessons of the ''see Jane run'' type were too slow a process to meet the immediate needs of domestic workers. That is why her program is pioneering techniques to teach students things they need to understand now.

One of the first organized efforts to help domestics was the Domestic Workers' and Employers' Project (DWEP), founded by the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1971. Mrs. Ledochowski's project is is one of several that have sprung indirectly from the early work of that project.

After a decade of work to improve relations between employers and domestics, DWEP worker Lorraine Tabane says there has been noticeable progress.

One function of DWEP is lodging formal complaints with employers from domestics who feel they have been treated unfairly. Complaints once drew outrage from whites. Now, for the most part, employers deal thoughtfully with complaints , she says.

DWEP was instrumental in establishing the South African Domestic Workers Association, which some see as the beginning of a trade-union movement for domestics.

Overall, however, the economic position of domestic workers has not improved, says Sue Gordon, who helped start DWEP. ''Most are still underpaid,'' she insists. The South African Domestic Workers Association recommends a minimum wage for domestic workers of about $104 per month, in addition to food and lodging. Mrs. Gordon reckons the average actual wage is about $57 per month, for a typical 60-hour workweek.

She says the most basic problem for domestic workers is that they have no legislative protection. They cannot participate in the government's unemployment insurance fund or workmen's compensation program. Neither are there legislative requirements as to basic conditions of employment.

The government now has established a commission to investigate conditions for domestic and farmworker sectors.

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