Sophia's Choice: Debt, Social Welfare, and Racial Capitalism

Authors: Erin Torkelson*, University of California Berkeley
Topics: Development, Economic Geography, Africa
Keywords: Digital Geographies, Debt, Race, Cash Transfer, Social Welfare, South Africa
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 37
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In this paper, I examine normative assumptions about cash transfers as public goods and the lived experience of cash transfers as private debts. Specifically, cash transfers are commonly conceived as apolitical, value-neutral monetary instruments, which avoid inappropriate, top-down and universalizing development priorities. Instead, I show how digital cash transfer payment systems introduce their own universals, by imagining liberal sovereign subjects, who use credit to manage their own financial and developmental needs. I argue that this narrative elides the deep historical and geographical production of racial difference through debt in South Africa’s Western Cape farmlands. Building on Malini Ranganathan (2019), I call this phenomenon racial financial capitalism, in which coloured people have been racialized as debtors for the benefit of capital accumulation across generations. I trace the contemporary digital realities of a social welfare program that continues to racialize grantees as debtors and dispossess them of their social entitlements. These repetitive transgenerational experiences of debt enable grantees to challenge the continued social reproduction of themselves as debtors, instead demanding recognition that they are, in fact, net creditors to the nation.

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