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Sophia’s Choice: Moral Economies of Digital Social Welfare Delivery in South Africa

Authors: Erin Torkelson*, University of California Berkeley
Topics: Development, Ethnicity and Race, Economic Geography
Keywords: Cash Transfers, Debt, Care, Reparation
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Cash transfer programs – one of the most popular development initiatives of the last decade – use digital technologies to create new financial assets for poor people. Such digital distribution can turn cash transfer recipients into a captive market for financial service providers. Between 2012 and 2018, the South African cash transfer payment system transformed the social entitlements of 18 million people into collateral for high-interest loans. This resulted in widespread indebtedness, whereby the very grant meant to assist vulnerable South Africans was devoured in credit, interest, and fees. While this was a national crisis, there appeared to be little protest amongst recipients themselves, and the majority of discontent came from middle-class publics. Relying on three years of fieldwork, I argue that grant beneficiaries engaged in critical forms of activism around the moral economies of debt – in payment queues, grocery stores and community meetings. Appealing to the multivalent meanings of debt, grant recipients linked the micro-practices of debt-based social welfare to macro-political debates about the ongoing debts of colonialism and apartheid. Such moral economies drew on histories of racialized violence, labor exploitation and land expropriation under colonialism and apartheid to argue that social welfare must be seen as a reparation. This work brings race and racism into discussions of moral economies, which has, to date, been more focused on class, gender and generation.

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