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  • Introduction: Popular Economies in South Africa
  • Elizabeth Hull and Deborah James

African economies have long been a matter of concern to anthropologists, not least in the pages of Africa. These economies are situated, somewhat contradictorily, between global settings of financialized capitalism on the one hand and impoverished local arenas where cash-based economic transfers predominate on the other. The more such economies appear to be tied to wider global arenas and operations that place them beyond the reach of ordinary people, the more necessary it is to explore the logics and decisions that tie them inexorably to specific everyday settings.

The articles in this volume aim to undertake such an investigation by exploring popular, local economies in the case of South Africa: a setting which many writers have justly regarded as ‘exceptional’ but which, at the same time, has significant continuities with other African contexts. The authors draw for their theoretical inspiration on concepts developed elsewhere in Africa, specifically those relating to the way state-regulated and legal/formal economic arrangements interpenetrate with those less visible and less regulated (Hart 1973; Guyer 2004; Shipton 2007, 2009, 2010). We maintain that these ideas have wider analytical purchase and can be usefully applied – even though South Africa is a setting where wage-labour capitalism has until recently dominated the economy (Cooper 2002: 194), and where state regulation and state-organized redistribution have predominated to a far greater degree than elsewhere in Africa. For while unregulated economic activities may be more limited, less multifaceted, and increasingly more subject to the state’s gaze than in other parts of Africa, modes for analysing them are nonetheless urgently required if we are to avoid the limitations of a singular view of South Africa’s economy.

Anthropology of Economy from Apartheid to Democracy

Although anthropologists have long been preoccupied with the relationship between the divergent structures and repertoires of global- and local-level economic arrangements, a more nuanced anthropological study of economy in South Africa, and one which takes account of new developments, is somewhat overdue. In the 1970s, scholars with a Marxist orientation challenged claims that the country’s economy was ‘dual’ (Houghton 1976) by emphasizing the articulation of divergent economic modes. Their writings nonetheless tended to reproduce a sense of dis-articulation. Echoing other dualisms which have prevailed in South African studies, analyses concentrated less on productive than on reproductive activities and focused mainly on the rural subsistence economy. Although it was the intention to challenge liberal economists’ model of a ‘dual economy’ (ibid.), anthropologists nonetheless implicitly accepted a division of academic labour, continuing to explore subsistence and redistribution, and leaving matters [End Page 1] of the market and the creation and exchange of value to economists. This was an economic arena linked to the mainstream only through the activities of participants in the (stunted) ‘informal economy’ or through the mechanism of migrants’ remittances. Such remittances, dubbed ‘private redistribution’ by Seekings and Nattrass (2005), were increasingly supplanted by their ‘public’ counterparts: particularly the state pension, upon which poorer people came to rely as unemployment rates soared after the late 1970s.

But the sphere previously seen in structural terms as concerned with ‘reproduction’ has been revalidated as a legitimate concern of those anthropologists interested in economy. Before Adam Smith coined the phrase ‘political economy’, the household was the original domain in which economy was seen as situated: there is now a call for a return to a ‘human economy’ perspective (Hann and Hart 2011; Hart et al. 2010). ‘Community’ needs to be explored alongside ‘market’, claims Stephen Gudeman, and local, ‘house’-based models of the economy must be acknowledged as relating to, rather than being distinct from, more corporate conceptions (2001; 2010: 139). Here, too, the value of Jane Guyer’s book Marginal Gains (2004) can be seen. She calls for a transcending of binary assumptions in which capitalism on the one hand is counterposed against local forms of exchange which resist it on the other. Instead she calls for attention to how economic concepts emerge from ‘experience in the world’ (2004: 158). She asks us to explore how dynamic processes of formalization are extended ‘piecemeal’ rather than uniformly and in a homogenizing manner (ibid...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0184
Print ISSN
0001-9720
Pages
pp. 1-19
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-16
Open Access
No
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