Collateral Damages: Debt and Social Welfare in South Africa

Authors: Erin Torkelson*, University of California Berkeley
Topics: Geography and Urban Health, Development, Women
Keywords: Cash Transfers, Debt, Care
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: President's Boardroom, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the past two decades, cash transfer programs have been widely promoted as exciting new biopolitical interventions —capable of ameliorating the inefficiencies of international aid, the incapacities of southern states, and the consequences of global inequality. Over and against such boosterism, this presentation considers how South Africa’s cash transfer program has become a means of monopolistic and coercive inclusion into financial markets. New cash transfer technologies – promoted under the auspices of financial inclusion – enable companies to use citizen entitlements as collateral to reap profits through risk-free (for the lenders) loans. The vast majority of South African cash transfer recipients are unemployed, with their loan repayments linked to their monthly grants, not their ability to earn a wage. Credit, then, is no longer a claim on their future labor, but a claim on their future life, or the very means of sustaining future life. This biopolitical intervention, premised on care, promises to mitigate the contradictions between simultaneously providing cash transfers for basic needs and offering profitable financial products. In practice, however, cash transfers produce new forms of highly-leveraged social citizenship. Despite the name, cash transfers are not just about transferring cash to the poor, but violently including people in financial markets on disadvantageous terms.

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