I have to work harder “because I’m a woman”

By Fiona Ingham

Thobeka Magubenihas been working as a qualified plumber for four years. She works on the Expanded Public Works Programme in KwaZulu-Natal, which she joined in 2009. Out of the 300 people on the programme, only five of them were women. After three years on the programme, she earned her trade diploma and licence.

During her studies, the attitude of workmates towards her was not entirely positive and they complained about her femininity. “It’s not an easy job,” she says. “You have to carry a heavy toolkit and you have to install gutters. You also have to dig trenches for sewer lines. But I have done all off this. They say a woman has soft hands, so I have to work harder to prove myself because I am a woman.”

“Plumbing is a career that allows you to combine knowledge with the ability to build something with your hands,” says Magubeni. “It is also a good trade because you can be trained on the job.”

Magubeni works at the Christ the King Hospital in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal, where most of her work involves maintenance plumbing. She has to clear basins, gutters and blocked drains. Before she had this job, she worked as a maintenance worker at Stanger Hospital.

She says her biggest challenge is that people do not have faith in female plumbers yet. “When I want to go for an interview, they do not want to see me because I am a woman. I try to make sure that I do the job well to prove that I can do it.”

Despite the obstacles she faces, the work is plentiful. She is not aware of any men that are earning more to do the same work, but she does say that the plumbers at Transnet are much better paid.

She says that the Department of Public Works is trying to redress inequality by giving women five extra points before they start.

The question of work-life balance is sadly not a reality for her. As for so many South Africans, she has had to go to the city to find work and does not live with her children. “I phone them every day to say ‘I love you’,” she says. She gets to visit them in Stanger only twice a month.

“I also work on the night shift at the hospital,” she says. “They have me on standby and I get called out for blockages.”

Where does she see herself in five years’ time? “I see myself making lots of money! I will start my own company or I will go to the private sector, because they don’t pay well in the public sector.”

Magubeni has explored other avenues to better herself by attending National Youth Development programme training, which gave her some guidance on starting out on her own. “They taught me about starting my own business.” But now, having turned 35, she is no longer eligible for the programme. She says although she cannot continue on the course, at least she was able to learn some valuable skills. 

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