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Liberation and Redistribution: Social Grants, Commercial Insurance, and Religious Riches in South Africa

  • Erik Bähre (a1)

South Africa's liberation, marked by the first democratic elections of 1994, ushered in an unprecedented expansion of large-scale redistributive arrangements. In the post-apartheid period, the collection of money into a central fund administered anonymously and bureaucratically has gained social and political importance, particularly for poor and lower-middle-class Africans. This is most evident in a rapid expansion of government social assistance—from 1997 to 2006 the number of beneficiaries of social grants increased from three to almost eleven million, and today at least a quarter of South African households receive welfare payments. Social assistance “has been the fastest-growing category of government expenditure since 2001, and now amounts to R70 billion [almost US$7 billion in 2006] a year, about 3.4 percent of gross domestic product.” The centrality of redistribution is clear in current debates over the establishment of a Basic Income Grant (BIG) for all South Africans. Political liberation has also brought an increase in redistribution through development projects such as the National Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) grants.

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1 K. Pauw and L. Mncube, “The Impact of Growth and Redistribution on Poverty and Inequality in South Africa,” DPRU Working Paper 07/126, Development Policy Research Unit, Cape Town, 2007.

2 Budget speech by South Africa's Minister of Finance Trevor Manual, 15 Feb. 2006, at:

3 Ferguson, J., “Formalities of Poverty: Thinking about Social Assistance in Neoliberal South Africa.” African Studies Review 50 (2007), 7186.

4 For the principles of the RDP, see Turok, I., “Restructuring or Reconciliation? South Africa's Reconstruction and Development Programme,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 19 (1995): 305–18. On BEE, see Ponte, S., Roberts, S., and van Sittert, L., “‘Black Economic Empowerment,’ Business and the State in South Africa,” Development and Change 38 (2007): 933–55.

5 The South African figure comes from the insurance report 2004Q4, Business Monitor International (Mermaid House, London, 2004), 3. For other countries, “according to a study by the Insurance Information Institute, expenditures on non-life insurance in 2003,” see: The U.S. expenditure is given as 5.23 percent of GDP.

6 D. Porteous, “The Access Frontier as an Approach and Tool in Making Markets Work for the Poor,” Working Paper by Bankable Frontier Associates for the UK Department for International Development (DFID), 2005, at:

7 For an analysis of Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches in Africa, see Meyer, B., “Christianity in Africa: From African Independent to Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches in Africa,” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 447–74. On the UCKG in South Africa, see I. van Wyk, “Profit Prophets and God's Money:” The Making and Unmaking of Riches in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Durban, South Africa (PhD thesis, London School of Economics, 2007). On the Assemblies of God in South Africa, see K. Helgesson, “Walking in the Spirit”: The Complexity of Belonging in Two Pentecostal Churches in Durban, South Africa (PhD thesis, Uppsala University, Sweden, 2006).

8 P. G. Leite, T. McKinley, and R. Guerreiro Osorio, “The Post-Apartheid Evolution of Earnings Inequality in South Africa, 1995–2004,” Working Paper 12, UNDP, International Poverty Centre, 2006, 16. For details on the gini index in South Africa, see Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), “Factsheet Poverty in South Africa,” Factsheet no. 1, at: (26 July 2004).

9 Statistics South Africa, “Labour Force Survey September 2000 to March 2005: Historical Series of Revised Estimates,” Statistics South Africa, Report P0210, 2005, 10, 19. On rising unemployment in post-apartheid South Africa, and its causes, see Kingdon, G. and Knight, J., “Unemployment in South Africa, 1995–2003: Causes, Problems and Policies,” Journal of African Economies 16, 5 (2007): 813–48; and Kingdon, G. and Knight, J., “What Have We Learnt about Unemployment from Microdatasets in South Africa?Social Dynamics 27, 1 (2001): 7995, quote p. 90. Branson argues that the increasing unemployment among Africans is due to young people leaving school earlier and thus entering the labor market at a younger age: N. Branson, “The South African Labour Market 1995–2004: A Cohort Analysis,” SALDRU Working Paper 7, Cape Town, 2006.

10 HSRC, Factsheet no. 1, 1.

11 Abrahamsen, R., “The Power of Partnerships in Global Governance,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 1453–67; Elyachar, J., “Empowerment Money: The World Bank, Non-Governmental Organizations, and the Value of Culture in Egypt,” Public Culture 14, 3 (2002): 493513; Ferguson, J., “Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa,” American Anthropologist 107, 3 (2005): 377–82; Miraftab, F., “Neoliberalism and Casualization of Public Sector Services: The Case of Waste Collection Services in Cape Town, South Africa,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28, 1 (2004): 874–92.

12 Beaud, S. and Pialoux, M., “Between ‘Mate’ and ‘Scab’: The Contradictory Inheritance of French Workers in the Postfordist Factory,” Ethnography 2, 3 (2001): 323–55; Kasmir, S., “The Mondragón Model as Post-Fordist Discourse: Considerations on the Production of Post-Fordism,” Critique of Anthropology 19, 4 (1999): 379400.

13 Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J., “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony,” American Ethnologist 26, 2 (1999): 279303; and Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12, 2 (2000): 291343.

14 Comaroff and Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism”; Klima, A., “Spirits of ‘Dark Finance’ in Thailand: A Local Hazard for the International Moral Fund,” Cultural Dynamics 18, 1 (2006): 3360; Strange, S., Casino Capitalism (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

15 Beck, U., Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage, 1992).

16 For an insightful exposé, see Maurer, B., “The Anthropology of Money,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 1536.

17 See Polanyi, K.. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Hill, 1944). For recent explorations of his work, see Hart, K. and Hann, C. M., eds., The Great Transformation Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

18 For an analysis of the power dynamics of the market and redistribution, see Roitman, J., Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2005).

19 Bähre, E., Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Organizations in a South African Township (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

20 The threat of violence makes survey work a daunting task. Fortunately, my research assistant Edith Moyikwa was robbed only once while carrying out the work. The survey was based on a random sample in both areas, and people were approached at their homes. To ensure that the employed were represented, most interviews were conducted in the evenings and on weekends. When adults were absent, the children, who were usually present, would help to set up a more suitable meeting time.

21 For a more elaborate account, see Bähre, Money and Violence.

22 See Ross, R.. A Concise History of South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 5152, 88; Peires, J. B., The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement 1856–7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989).

23 On labor migration, see Bundy, C., The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (London: Heinemann, 1979), 225; and Hunter, M., “The Effects of Contact with Europeans on the Status of Pondo Women,” Africa 6 (1933): 108. On gender and migration ratios, see Wilson, M. and Mafeje, A., Langa: A Study of Social Groups in an African Township (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1963), 5; and Bundy, Rise and Fall, 229–300. On influx control in Cape Town, see Besteman, C., Transforming Cape Town (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and Goldin, I., Making Race: The Politics and Economics of Coloured Identity in South Africa (London and New York: Longman, 1987).

24 Ramphele, M., “The Dynamics of Gender Politics in the Hostels of Cape Town: Another Legacy of the South African Migrant Labour System,” Journal of Southern African Studies 15, 3 (1989): 396–97. Many Xhosa migrants lived in the city illegally and therefore could not find formal employment.

25 On abakhaya, see Bähre, Money and Violence; Bank, L., “The Social Life of Paraffin: Gender, Domesticity and the Politics of Value in a South African Township,” African Studies 56, 2 (1997): 157–79; Mayer, P. and Mayer, I., Townsmen or Tribesmen: Conservatism and the Process of Urbanization in a South African City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); and Wilson and Mafeje, Langa, 39–54. On social control in financial mutuals, see Ardener, S., “The Comparative Study of Rotating Credit Associations,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 94, 2 (1964): 201–29; de Swaan, A. and van der Linden, M., eds., Mutualist Microfinance: Informal Saving Funds in the Periphery and in the Core? (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2006).

26 E. Bähre, “Changing Interdependencies and the State: How Financial Mutuals Have Changed in South Africa,” in de Swaan, A. and van der Linden, M., eds., Mutualist Microfinance: Informal Saving Funds in the Periphery and in the Core? (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2006), 3165.

27 See also James, D., Songs of the Women Migrants: Performance and Identity in South Africa (London: Edinburgh University Press, 1999).

28 To some extent, cattle in bride wealth gifts are spoken of in monetary terms. Very few marriages took place during my research. With respect to marriages and cattle, see Beinart, W., The Political Economy of Pondoland, 1860–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J., “Goodly Beasts, Beastly Goods: Cattle and Commodities in a South African Context,” American Ethnologist 17, 2 (1990): 195216; Ferguson, J., “The Bovine Mystique: Power, Property and Livestock in Rural Lesotho,” Man 20, 4 (1985): 647–74; Kuper, A., Wives for Cattle: Bridewealth and Marriage in Southern Africa (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).

29 Statistics South Africa, Provincial Profile Western Cape 2004 (2006), pp. 56, 70, at:

30 Ferguson, “Formalities of Poverty,” 76. On discouraged work-seekers, see Statistics South Africa, Labour Force Survey, iv.

31 Ibid., 23.

32 P. McAllister, “Maize Yields in the Transkei: How Productive Is Subsistence Cultivation? Occasional Paper Series: Land Reform and Agrarian Change in Southern Africa,” Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, 2000.

33 See Seekings, J. and Nattrass, N., Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press 2005), 347; Ferguson, “Formalities of Poverty.” On development, see Bähre, E., “How to Ignore Corruption: Reporting the Shortcomings of Development in South Africa,” Current Anthropology 46, 1 (2005): 107–20.

34 Niehaus, I., “Doing Politics in Bushbuckridge: Work, Welfare and the South African Elections of 2004,” Africa 76, 4 (2006): 526–48.

35 See Bähre, E., “Beyond Legibility: Violence, Conflict, and Development in a South African Township,” African Studies 66, 1 (2007): 79102.

36 K. Pauw and L. Mncube, “Expanding the Social Security Net in South Africa: Opportunities, Challenges and Constraints, Development Policy Research Unit, Cape Town,” DPRU Working Paper 07/127, 2007.

37 Pauw and Mncube, “Impact of Growth,” 12.

38 Seekings and Nattrass, Race, Class, and Inequality, 340–75.

39 Pauw and Mncube, “Impact of Growth,” 13.

40 See the website of the Department of Social Development: The values given were defined in October 2008.

41 On mental health and entitlement of grants, see also MacGregor, H.. “‘The Grant Is what I Eat’: The Politics of Social Security and Disability in the Post-Apartheid South African State,” Journal of Biosocial Science 38, 1 (2005): 4355.

42 Pauw and Mncube, “Expanding the Social Security Net,” 13, 47.

43 See de Swaan, A., “Elite Perceptions of the Poor: Reflections on a Comparative Research Project,” in Reis, E. P. and Moore, M., eds., Elite Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality (London, New York, and Cape Town: Zed Books), 182–94.

44 Seekings and Nattrass, Race, Class, and Inequality, 361.

45 Bertrand, M. S., Mullainathan, S., and Miller, D. appear to be oblivious to the nexus of poverty and household dynamics when they argue that what reduces the labor force among Africans is the provision of pensions. See their paper, “Public Policy and Extended Families: Evidence from Pensions in South Africa,” World Bank Economic Review 17, 1 (2003): 2750. On the contrary, it is the absence of labor that leaves young men and women with little alternative but to rely on social assistance.

46 For a compelling argument on individualized explanations for the structural conditions of unemployment in Northern Ireland, see Howe, L., “Scrounger, Worker, Beggarman, Cheat: The Dynamics of Unemployment and the Politics of Resistance in Belfast,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, 3 (1998): 531–50.

47 Comaroff and Comaroff, “Occult Economies”; and “Millennial Capitalism.”

48 See Shipton, P., “Luo Entrustment: Foreign Finance and the Soil of the Spirits in Kenya,” Africa 65, 2 (1995): 165–96; Guyer, J., Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience.

49 Polanyi, Great Transformation.

50 Other policies were the provident fund (16 percent), education policies (8 percent), car insurances (8 percent), disability policies (5 percent), the insurance of loan installments on furniture (4 percent), and investment funds (4 percent).

51 Kendall's tau_b 0,503, correlation significant at the 0.01 level, N = 110.

52 FinScope of 2003 states that almost nobody earning below R1000 a month has a policy. Because the study on which the FinScope data is based is unavailable, even though the study was publicly funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the reason for this vast discrepancy remains unclear.

53 Porteous, “Access Frontier.” On marketing, see also Bähre, E., “Redes de inclusão e burocracias de exclusão: Riscos e seguros de responsabilidade civil entre os mais pobres na África do Sul,” Etnográfica 14, 3 (2010): 465–85.

54 For a more elaborate analysis of the pressures on reciprocal relations among kin and neighbors, see Bähre, E., “Reluctant Solidarity: Death, Urban Poverty and Neighbourly Assistance in South Africa,” Ethnography 8, 1 (2007): 3359.

55 The relation was significant at the 0.05 level, with a Pearson correlation of -0,229.

56 See the press release of 11 Sept. 2007:

57 For a fascinating argument on urban poverty, social organizations, and labor, see Davis, M., Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).

58 Of the respondents that belonged to a church, 11 percent were Anglicans and 23 percent Methodists. These are much smaller numbers than were found to belong to those churches in 1960. See Wilson and Mafeje, Langa, 92.

59 On the UCKG, see Van Wyk, “Profit Prophets.” On hierarchy in the Assemblies of God, see Helgesson, “Walking in the Spirit,” ch. 5.

61 See also Van Wyk, “Profit Prophets.”

62 On the plurality of economic regimes, see Guyer, Marginal Gains; and Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience. On the role of churches in the plurality of economic regimes see Akin, D., “Cash and Shell Money in Kwaio, Solomon Islands,” in Akin, D. and Robbins, J., eds., Money and Modernity: State and Local Currencies in Melanesia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 103–30.

63 Comaroff and Comaroff, “Occult Economies,” 288.

64 Ferguson, “Formalities of Poverty.”

65 See, among others, the canonical studies by Polanyi, Great Transformation; and Simmel, G., The Philosophy of Money (London and New York: Routledge, 1900).

66 Quotation from Guyer, Marginal Gains, 30. See also Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience; and Akin, “Cash and Shell Money.” On spheres of exchange, see Bohannan, P., “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 57, 1 (1955): 6070.

Acknowledgments: My research was made possible by, among others, the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research, section WOTRO, and Deborah James' ESCR-funded project “The Anthropology of Economy in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” which allowed me to work at the London School of Economics. Preliminary versions of this paper were presented as a keynote in October 2006 at the South African Actuarial Convention in Cape Town, and in September 2008 at the staff seminar of the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. I thank participants in that seminar for their inspiring comments. I especially wish to acknowledge Sara Dorman, Sakkie Niehaus, Marianne Maeckelbergh, and the anonymous CSSH referees for their stimulating suggestions and inviting comments. I am grateful to Jo Swabe and David Akin for editing my English.

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