Reworking Citizenship
Race, Gender, and Kinship in South Africa
Brady G'Sell



DEMOCRACY,” NOKUTHULA SNORTED SCATHINGLY.1 “In 1994, we got our democracy but, up until now . . . the only thing they push down our throats—that they busy showing us—is that we got democracy.” It was the eve of South Africa’s 2014 general elections, only the fifth in which black African women like Nokuthula had been allowed to participate, and I had asked her how she felt about the upcoming opportunity to cast her vote. Though she prized this long-sought right, Nokuthula was deeply disillusioned with what she saw as the content of her newly minted citizenship:

We have just been told we are all citizens by being given those green ID books. . . . And now, it’s what they have, like, brainwashed us: we have citizenship. So, [she paused] a democracy is just a content, an ideology for certain people that it works for them, but it is not working for all of us.

She grabbed her chipped tea mug and sipped from it. We sat at her small table, wedged between the door and the counter that held the hot plate and the paraffin stove where she cooked most of the family’s meals. The paraffin stove was a curious item in a flat on the twelfth floor of a high rise whose units once catered to the holiday makers who annually flock to the city of Durban’s beautiful beachfront. But the stove’s presence here bespoke the very issues Nokuthula was lamenting. Paraffin stoves in South Africa, as in so many other places, are tools of the disconnected—those who by choice or by fortune do not have access to electricity, natural gas, or other energy sources often provided by the state. While those in the rural areas often use paraffin stoves when firewood is scarce, in South Africa the stoves are synonymous with urban shack settlements, places where communities have responded to inadequate housing by seizing land and claiming belonging through their continued occupation. In Nokuthula’s building, some units were occupied by squatters who could easily evade the infrequent police visits by escaping down a secondary staircase. Others, like her, were renters, most of whom struggled to pay the monthly electricity and water fees in addition to rent. Thus, between the “load shedding” outages planned by the state electricity utility and the family’s unplanned cash shortages, many meals were cooked on the paraffin stove. Nokuthula’s ten-year-old daughter walked into the room, waving the paraffin fumes from her nose and sighing at the lidless toilet, visible in the gap where a door once hung. “We pay so much in rent, but . . .” she opened her arms wide to encompass the whole scene, “we live like squatters.”

Nokuthula nodded vigorously, taking in her daughter’s statement, and continued, “In an economy side, we don’t have that democracy which they are talking about . . . [she raised her voice and pounded her chest with her fist]. You find, people they still got anger . . . because now they got democracy but they are still living to an old era which they were living before democracy.” She sighed audibly and wrapped her fingers around her tea mug, staring into the dark liquid as if what she sought could be found there. “No,” she said, her voice much softer now, “I do not have that democracy, that citizenship,” she almost spat the word, “I am a qualified educator and I can barely feed my children.”

Relational Citizenship and Political Belonging

Statements such as Nokuthula’s are the provocation to which this book responds. Across two decades of research in postapartheid South Africa, I persistently wondered what it meant that the very groups—people racially categorized as black African, Indian, and coloured (mixed race)—who momentously gained a host of rights, social assistance, and representation in the democratic transition, also widely protested that they had been excluded from the new nation. In one sense there are simplistic answers about the political impossibility of radical economic redistribution by 1994 and, relatedly, the enduring discrimination and inequality that continue to adhere to racial lines. Yet, liberal theories that envision autonomous citizens as bound to states through formalized rights cannot account for my interlocutors’ assertions that though they can now vote, or sue an errant father, they are not citizens. This book asks, what does citizenship mean to those who gained widespread formal inclusions yet still experience exclusion? What assumptions about entitlements, obligation, and belonging do they hold? The answers offer new understandings of politics in places like South Africa and beyond.

Across the globe, access to arable land or waged employment is less and less available to larger segments of the population. This has created a high-stakes dilemma for liberal democracies built around the imagined universality of the able-bodied (often, male) worker. If the independence of the wage earner is a central criterion for full citizenship, what does it mean for political belonging that increasing numbers of people cannot, and likely will not ever, find waged work? As this central tenet of the state-citizen covenant erodes, what obligations do states have to support the livelihoods of their citizens? What does citizenship itself mean? I answer these questions through an analysis of how citizenship is profoundly intertwined with economies and kinship. This entanglement is not unique to South Africa, and indeed the insights of this book are broadly applicable to many sites across the globe where national membership is being contested and reconfigured. I center South Africa here because the country’s particular history and processes of decolonization render such reconfiguring uniquely visible.

This book forwards a political theory from the street,2 as generated by women who because of overlapping racism and sexism were barred access to the privileges of citizenship under colonialism, racial segregation, and apartheid.3 These women also stood the most to gain from democratic liberation. Their paramount concerns—about unemployment that results in hungry children—are borne of both their present needs and a longer history in which full citizenship (historically held by whites) was marked by state support, particularly, of child-rearing. This was also a history in which the expansion of racial capitalism involved the systematic undermining of black African families, even as it relied on and capitalized on their resilience. A central project of colonial, segregationist, and apartheid governments was to create and maintain a racial hierarchy in which whites could obtain and retain political and economic dominance. This was achieved through a state-directed form of what anthropologist Shellee Colen calls “stratified reproduction,” wherein different race groups were given vastly unequal state social protection in alignment with their envisioned place in the racial order (Colen 1995). In response, generations of black, coloured, and Indian women protested the racist state’s simultaneously harmful intrusion and exclusion by demanding access to the robust support given to whites.4 Aware of this history, women like Nokuthula link the state’s support of social reproduction with their political status. They contend that political belonging—the affective experience that imbues citizenship status with meaning—is tied to their ability to support themselves and their kin, notably, their children.

Taking seriously women’s idea that obtaining long-denied rights does not generate political belonging requires rethinking citizenship as manifested in the benefits conferred to individual subjects. When the women I know decry that their citizenship is “empty” because they cannot support their children, they are arguing for a recognition that citizenship is relational and material, meaning constituted through the layers of relationships in which people are embedded. For Nokuthula, her unemployment was a problem because she struggled to feed her children, pay their school fees, and to buy medicine for her ailing aunt. She was unable to be the mother, sister, niece, or neighbor she desired to be. She did not “have that citizenship” because she was blocked from investing in the relationships that were important to her. Livelihoods can be important in various ways, but, critically, they enable people to regenerate kinship bonds by meeting and negotiating their obligations of care through material distribution and exchange.5 This is an understanding of citizenship that arises out of notions of relational personhood long recognized as operating throughout the Global South and within poor communities in the Global North (Ferguson 2013; Englund and Nyamnjoh 2004; Rice 2017; Strathern 1988). In this context, participation in these social relationships is what makes people fully, recognizably, human. Definitions of freedom or liberation—evoked across the antiapartheid struggle—do not turn on whether one is dependent on others (e.g., dependence in opposition to independence). Rather, at issue is the control and influence one can exert over how to navigate fundamental interdependence.

Following democratic transition, impoverished black African, coloured and Indian women formally became citizens but continued to feel excluded because they measured their political belonging by their ability to regenerate their kin relationships—by the security of their social reproduction. They gained juro-political citizenship but lacked what I have termed relational citizenship. Inasmuch as the women I know expected and desired the democratic state to secure relational citizenship, in the face of its failure, they did not passively await change. In their words, “when children are hungry, you have to make a plan.” Overwhelmingly, these “plans” involved livelihood strategies that braided together state entitlements, informal exchange, and direct solicitation in an effort to secure resources such as food, blankets, cash, or cell phone minutes to support themselves and their children. As they encountered state supports that continued to imagine people as autonomous, rights-bearing citizens—the Child Support Grant (chapter 4), the Maintenance Court (chapter 5), immigration law (chapter 6)—they reworked them. They selected components of these policies, sometimes the underlying logic, sometimes the bureaucratic mechanisms, and pressed them into service to secure their relationships and shore up their sense of belonging. Though these strategies took many forms, what made them cohere as a category was that they were in service to kin obligations (most often mothers supporting their children) and in turn relied on kinship obligations to press their claim.

In order to secure resources, the women I know engaged in what I call kinshipping, or the formation and solidification of relationships expressed in a kinship idiom in order to claim support from a broad array of persons and institutions.6 Kinshipping is a livelihood strategy, a form of what Jim Ferguson calls “distributive labor,” or the effort to compel those with resources to share them with those who don’t by fostering ties of dependence (2015: 100). In one sense, the targets of these claims could be anyone with greater resources, even marginally so. In many places on the African continent, people operate within a moral economy in which not sharing, or “eating for oneself,” is seen as not only selfish but asocial and incites accusations of witchcraft (Ashforth 2005; Chabal and Daloz 1999). At the same time, claim-making gains greater traction when grounded in relationships in which the terms of obligation are already known: patron and client or kin being ur examples. Kinshipping is a distinct form of hustling in which women specifically used kinship idioms and the obligations embedded within them to make claims of dependence on relatives, former lovers, neighbors, government, and aid agencies for resources. However, these were not claims for women just as singular dependents, these were claims in order to support women’s own kin obligations, most often, as mothers. Thus, through their claim-making, they also demanded recognition that they were not autonomous subjects but relational persons who required resources that sustained them as such.

The core argument of this book is that impoverished black African, coloured, and Indian women contest their incomplete inclusion in the nation by using kinshipping to rework their juro-political citizenship to be more relational. In the process they obtain recognition, support for social reproduction, and forge new relations of belonging between men and women, persons and communities, citizens and state. True, these gains are modest, quotidian, and informal. Yet their meaning and import looms large. Centering the political understandings of women like Nokuthula requires thinking about citizenship not as conferred abstractly but worked out in layered relationships through which rights and entitlements, duties and responsibilities are negotiated (Nyamnjoh 2007). Thus, in contrast to scholars who analyze citizenship through a focus on state definitions, here I focus on the lived experiences of citizenship. Drawing kinship theory into an analysis of citizenship, I show how the concept of relational citizenship reimagines rights and obligations not as located in autonomous, individual persons, but as bound up in the web of relationships in which people are embedded. In so doing, I theorize how political belonging is reworked via the everyday interactions through which people “get by.”

Citizenship, Kinship, Economy

The interrelationship between citizenship and social reproduction arises out of conversations taking place at multiple scales. For decades, there have been debates over the meaning of citizenship in South Africa, and particularly, what it means to belong to the nation. Everyone from disgruntled grandmothers, to antiapartheid activists, to parliamentarians have participated in such discussions. Academics in South Africa are frequently public scholars, and the same ideas that may circulate in journal articles are also evoked at marches and in newspaper opinion pieces. This is to say that as much as citizenship functions as an analytic category throughout this book, citizenship is also a vernacular term that people put into action in various ways. So too is the notion of social reproduction, which people colloquially discuss as responsibilities to care for kin. While there may be numerous political theories about the obligation of different kinds of states to ensure the social welfare of citizens, for my interlocutors, the link between citizenship and social reproduction under democracy was always clear. Full citizenship in South Africa meant that the state provided, or at least buttressed, secure social reproduction.

This book brings the theoretical linkages between interpersonal relationships and citizenship into historical and ethnographic focus. I employ the work of scholars, particularly those theorizing politics in the Global South, who have argued that citizenship is not solely conferred by the state but is articulated in overlapping collectivities from the microlocal to the supranational (Lister 2003; Nyamnjoh 2018; Ong 1999; Yuval-Davis 1999).7 These layers determine both belonging and access to resources within the collectivity. None of these “communities” or “groups” are given, natural units, though they are often durable (Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1993; Yuval-Davis 1997). These are ideological and material constructions, whose boundaries, structures, and norms are a result of constant struggles and negotiations (Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989). I understand citizenship here as “multilayered” or constituted and negotiated vertically and horizontally within these various spheres or layers (Yuval-Davis 1999).

This orientation is especially important in South Africa, where black African, coloured, and Indian women’s work to carve out viable lives—for example, raising children, meeting cultural and kin obligations—in the face of state exclusion has been as fundamental a site of politics as more recognized forms of activism such as protests (Healy-Clancy 2012). My interlocutors’ linking of citizenship with the ability to feed children aligns with these historic struggles and with the current concerns with “living politics” and “human dignity” that animate poor people’s movements today (Chance 2018; Ferguson 2007; Von Schnitzler 2016). They share a demand that the state provide for “basic needs” as a core obligation it holds to particularly its poorest citizens. Informed by my interlocutors, I focus on the tie between social reproduction and citizenship to embed relationality and interdependence into the very notion of citizenship.

I propose a theory of relational citizenship to describe my interlocutors’ understanding of citizenship as constituted through the relationships in which people are embedded. Their ability to regenerate their interdependent relationships is directly linked to belonging in the national community. This stands in contrast to the autonomous, rights-bearing subject that continues to dominate “Westocentric” political theory despite robust postcolonial and feminist critique (Alexander 1994; Balibar 1990; Hassim 1999; Manicom 2005; Narayan 1997). As many have documented, political policy and claim-making grounded in humanitarianism and human rights within a neoliberal context has had, at best, ambivalent results (Feldman 2007; Malkki 1996; McKay 2012; Redfield 2013; Ticktin 2011; Von Schnitzler 2014). Alternatively, as others have explored, across the African continent, people also use the language of kinship to critique or make demands on the state—often as a father who failed to provide and care for his citizen-progeny (e.g., Schatzberg 2001; see also Van Allen 2009 on claims to nurturing mother leaders and Bose 2017 on notions of the nation as mother in India).8 However, both of these modes often still retain the understanding of the citizen/recipient as an individuated subject. I show how, in response to austerity policies that constrain provisions to the minimal needs of an individual, the women I know instead ground their citizenship claims in their relationships—often to children—to solicit recognition and resources to sustain those relationships (Brown 1995; Feldman and Ticktin 2010).

For claims grounded in relational citizenship, the obligation to support does not just rest on a dyadic relationship of superior/subordinate but on the dyad as sitting amid a web of relations. Those of my interlocutors who spoke Zulu often described the need to hlangana. The isiZulu verb ukuhlangana, which conveys belonging, evokes both membership in a group and relations that are “thick” with either blood or obligation or both (Doke et. al. 2008: 710). This belonging is solidified through a reciprocal exchange of care and tribute. In the case of children, it involves the daily caregiving work to khulisa or raise a child (-isa being the causative suffix added to the verb ukukhula meaning to grow or nurture) that can be undertaken by parents, grandparents, or various elders. Resources to support khulisa-ing are often funneled through a primary caregiver whose nurturance reinforces the intertwined futures of caregiver and child (Hunter 2015). At the same time, both caregiver and child are embedded in other caregiving relationships (between siblings, child to aging parent or grandparent, cousins, etc.) whose requirements and assistance shape the contours of what khulisa-ing can look like. Thus, women’s demands for public support for their mothering ruptures the liberal illusions of autonomous personhood and protests the privatization of social reproduction so characteristic of neoliberal policy (Buch 2018; Muehlebach 2012).

The concept of relational personhood operating here encompasses an idea of self not as preexisting but as “attained in direct proportion as one participates in communal life through the discharge of the various obligations defined by one’s stations” (Menkiti 1984: 176). In this conception, personhood is always in process, constituted over the course of one’s life through relationships with others (Dossa and Coe 2017; Fortes 1987). Though relational personhood is often described in opposition to the autonomous individualism of the West, it is important to note that in the West as much as in South Africa, independence is, at best, an aspirational discourse put to other ends. Elana Buch potently argues that myths of American independence are upheld through highly unequal, dependent relationships that are artfully disguised from view (2018). In South Africa, Kate Rice shows how in the Xhosa-speaking community where she works, people often deploy discourses of individualism and autonomy to disentangle themselves from one relationship of obligation so they may embed themselves in another (2017). We can understand the concept of relational personhood not as evidence of some kind of cultural alterity or as suggesting a lack of modernity or freedom (as liberal political theory often positions it), but rather as giving name to the myriad ways in which humans across the life course are dependent on one another to sustain bodies and cultivate social worlds. This interdependence is overlooked in theories of liberal individualism that underlie a political and social order in which rights and recognition are tied to individual action that is presumed to be “liberated from the constraints of social roles” as though such a status does, or can ever, exist (Englund 2008; Kowalski 2022: 18).

Relational citizenship instead embraces Kowalski’s “politics of interdependence” (2022). Relational citizenship involves the recognition of and support for people’s labors to regenerate their interdependent relationships—at the level of the dyad, the family, the community, the state, and beyond. Historically, whites in South Africa achieved relational citizenship through state reserved jobs, robust welfare support, well-funded education, quality health care, and the ability to form marriages that involved cohabitation. People excluded from white privilege found ways to achieve relational intimacy and social reproduction, but they did so in spite of state disruption and deprivation of basic human needs. This meant that they were deeply constrained—by poverty, by restricted movement, by a denial of political rights—when trying to address the competing needs and obligations of their relationships. These competing demands, what Kowalski calls “dilemmas of interdependence,” are themselves fundamental to human experience, not something that can be exited, as women’s rights discourse often imagines (2022). In his critique of philosophical perspectives that tend to regard human relationships as secondary to human existence, Harri Englund notes, “what gets overlooked is the possibility that the compulsion at the heart of obligation is existential—that it is constitutive of, rather than external to, those who give and receive (2008: 36). That said, what constitutes a dilemma and the capacity to manage and respond to these dilemmas are profoundly shaped by political economies and the distribution of power and privilege along the lines of class, race, gender, age, ability, and such. Interdependent relationships can be supportive or injurious (oftentimes simultaneously). Kin relations, which are often organized by patriarchal logics, are frequently harmful, sometimes lethal, to women. This is tragically evident is the extraordinarily high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa. Thus, understandably, much of the feminist welfare scholarship has diligently sought to reduce women’s dependence on kin as a precondition for autonomy.9 While this has laudable ethical underpinnings, as Kowalski has deftly argued in regard to women’s rights discourse around domestic violence, these orientations presume that dependency is inevitably harmful and often envision kinship as static and unchanging, overlooking the dynamic and contingent nature of both (2022). Though dependent relations may sustain harmful social orders, they can also positively transform them (Han 2012; Garcia 2010; Stevenson 2014; Pinto 2011). I take as orientation Deborah Gaitskell’s statement that in South Africa, “Family life is and has long been for black women, something to struggle for, rather than against” (1983: 254). Rather than independence, a politics of interdependence seeks means to redistribute vulnerabilities to harm, as well as the accumulation of support, more equitably across kin (Kowalski 2022: 18). To have relational citizenship involves the capacity to participate in the regeneration of interdependent relationships and to have the potential to reorder them.

As a theory from the street, relational citizenship operates as a tool for normatively assessing a political community and as a set of political demands. It is congruent with a unified theory of citizenship, closely associated with English sociologist T. H. Marshall (and espoused in the South African Constitution) that contends that full citizenship has a civil, political, and social component (Lister 2005). Social citizenship to Marshall (and Marshallian theorists) was not simply an issue of juridical rights, or solely tied to income, but, rather, about the right to a minimum level of comprehensive support to achieve “a general reduction of risk and insecurity” and “an equalisation between the more and less fortunate at all levels” (Marshall 1950: 33). As an expansion of these principles, the normative framework of relational citizenship dovetails closely with the capabilities approach within development and political theory (Nussbaum 2000, 2003, 2011; Sen 1990, 1999). In this approach, the central concern is about what people can be or do: in Sen’s words “the substantive freedom of people to lead the lives they have reason to value” (1999: 293). As a number of feminists have found, the capaciousness of this approach holds enormous potential for evaluating concerns, such as gender or racial inequity, that cut across multiple domains (e.g., economy, politics, judicial access, etc.) (Agarwal, Humphries, and Robeyns 2006; Hassim 2008; Hochfeld 2022). At the same time, Marshall, Sen, and Nussbaum have all been critiqued for retaining a liberal emphasis on autonomous individuals. Instead, relational citizenship offers an alternative by infusing a politics of interdependence into questions about “leading lives that are valued.” It treats relationships as primary to human existence and as sites of creative imagining through which people may build desired futures (Clarke 2018; Kowalski 2022; Livingston 2005; Robbins 2020; TallBear 2019).10 Thus the question becomes, “to what degree can interdependent relationships be regenerated and reordered so as to redistribute harm, vulnerability, support, and such more equitably?” In short, “what can relations be or do?” For my interlocutors, these abstract ideas mapped onto very concrete demands for support for social reproduction.

I use the concepts of kinshipping and social reproduction to draw attention to the work of bringing relations from kinship to citizenship into being. I build on a rich scholarship that connects social reproduction to issues of gender, political economy, and negotiations of power (e.g., Backer and Cairns 2021; Barca 2020; Bezanson 2006; Bhattacharya 2017; Bhattacharya 2018; Fraser 2016; Hunter 2011; Makhulu 2015; Meehan and Strauss 2015; Mezzadri, Newman, and Stevano 2022; Weeks 2011; Yuval-Davis 1997). Social reproduction is brought about through reproductive labor, what sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn defines as “the creation and recreation of people as cultural and social, as well as physical human beings” (Glenn 1992). This labor is often framed as complementing and enabling the productive labor—the creation of goods and services for market exchange—that is demanded, valued, and more remunerated within a capitalist economy. Critical feminist scholars have long argued that the social expectations that women perform unpaid reproductive labor underlie women’s oppression and perpetuate intersecting racial, gender, and economic inequality. In South Africa, industrial capitalism took form under colonial and apartheid rule during which a large category of employment for black South Africans—men and women alike—was ensuring the reproduction of white households. While paid and unpaid reproductive labor is overwhelmingly still performed by black African women, this historical inequity holds a new meaning in the relative absence of opportunities for paid productive work. The rightful critique that capitalism thrives off of the surplus labor of workers and the inadequately compensated labor of women who sustain those workers begins to unravel when capitalism no longer demands many workers. This book considers what happens when social reproduction becomes both means and ends.11 Kinshipping as a concept accounts for labor that is both productive, in the sense of garnering resources, and reproductive in the sense of building and sustaining relationships. It is with this lens that I understand the women in this book to be arguing that while they may have the citizenship intended for the autonomous individual—rights, legal enfranchisement, access to minimal social protection—they do not have the relational citizenship that enables them to achieve full political belonging.

In the face of a state refusal to ensure relational citizenship, my interlocutors engaged in what I call kinshipping. In this book, kinshipping is the means by which people actively forge relationships with others, relationships that afford a flow of resources and sustain the existence of child (and parent). As a concept, kinshipping sits between Modell’s (1994) fictive kinship, which implies an ephemerality to nonbiological ties, and Howell’s (2003) process of kinning, which involves a permanent transubstantiation of selfhood. Kinshipping names the labor of forging bonds between persons that are at once forceful and contingent. It relies on an understanding that kinship is not simply the result of shared substance, shared space, or even marriage, but requires persistent labor to build and renew social ties and define and meet reciprocal obligations (Carsten 2004; Dossa and Coe 2017; Glenn, Chang, and Forcey 1994; Stack and Burton 1993; Strathern 1992; Weston 1997).12 In short, it assumes kinship is something that one does, not something that one has (Ferguson 2015; Franklin and McKinnon 2001). Of course there is no singular way to “do kinship.” Via kinshipping, people harness complex ideologies concerning hierarchy; reciprocal rights, duties, and obligations; material support; and sentimental connection to negotiate dependence and obligation (Carsten 2004: 19; McKinnon and Cannell 2013). Dependence here is not as a condition, but “a mode of action,” that a person strives to embody (Bayart and Ellis 2000: 218). Through the claim, a person argues that they are worthy of being a dependent and that the relationship already does, or could in the future, entail an obligation for exchange. My attention to kinshipping foregrounds the continuous and careful effort of sustaining a sense of personhood grounded in interdependence.

My use of kinship to refer to relationships that at times are ephemeral is theoretically purposeful and ethnographically driven. When my interlocutors go about making claims, they engage in practices that can also be described as hustling, networking, or judicious opportunism, practices that impoverished people on the margins all over the world engage in (Johnson-Hanks 2005). Women seek support not for themselves as individuals, but for their kinwork—terms that both legitimate their demands and constrain them. Further, their claim-making hails its target in kin terms—using aunty, mama, or sometimes babamkhulu for Zulu speakers. In one sense, using kin terms of respect ubiquitously is a shared practice in South Africa (like in many other places), but it is nonetheless deliberate and meaningful. Terms like ma’am, sir, or the Afrikaans baas (boss) are also widely accepted and used. For many, the question quickly becomes, “when a woman calls another woman “aunty” does she really understand her to be kin?” Like many kinship scholars, I don’t take kinship to be a stable category. There is no clear, preexisting boundary between kin and not kin. The boundary and the criteria for kinship are made and remade; they are fluid and processual. This understanding changes the question to be, “what does leveraging the language, meaning, and expectation of kinship do in this relationship at this time?” The ethnographic record offers numerous examples of the logic of making strangers into kin of various degrees, the most notable from contexts where kinship was not seen as incommensurable from politics:

A noteworthy fact of Barotse life is the tendency to expand isolated transactions between strangers into multiplex associations that resemble kin relationships. . . . All these relationships are marked by a public demand for love and affection and generous mutual aid, and people are expected to express these sentiment through material goods and services. (Gluckman 1965: 172–73)

A kinsman of any degree, is a person in whose welfare one is interested and whom one is under a moral obligation to help in difficulties, if possible. (Fortes 1949: 293)

Analyzing my interlocutors’ hustling practices through a kinship lens reveals how women leverage a set of moral obligations to make claims on others and the state to support their maternal labors. Of course, as anyone who has ever been disappointed by kin knows, it is not a given that these moral obligations will be honored (G’sell 2024). Rather, a kinship analysis makes visible the terms under which such claims have traction and the moral economy in which they operate.

Kinshipping gives a name to multiple overlapping processes. In one sense, it creates kinship bonds. Yet, as kinship scholars remind us, kinship is closely intertwined with political economy in ways aren’t just structured by, but actively produce and reproduce the economy (Bear et al. 2015; McKinnon and Cannell 2013; Schuster 2015; Stout 2015; Yanagisako 2002). As such, kinshipping functions as a livelihood strategy that enables ties of dependence and claim-making on different categories of people. In today’s economic and social uncertainty, the ability to make claims for resources—claims that will be honored—is just as much the stuff of survival and economic innovation as remunerated labor, and often more reliable. Their import has led some researchers to name claims of dependence a system of “informal social protection” (Du Toit and Neves 2009).

This book considers the various ways in which the production of kinship—for example, the making and meeting of obligations—is embedded in and shaped by its particular political economic context. I contend that kinshipping labor can neither be understood as an economic appropriation or instrumentalization of intimate relations nor as the domestication of economic logic (e.g., Constable 2009). Instead, I align with an intellectual lineage, inspired by Mauss, that intimate relationships are always already marked by generosity, obligation, and self-interest that is inherently economic (2000; Parry and Bloch 1989; Zelizer 1995, 2005). However, I take up Caroline Schuster’s call to not simply stop at that axiom but to consider “how and for whom social reciprocity takes hold and the uneven ways the social units of debt are created” (or not created) (2015: 17). Notably, claims to kinship are not always successful or desirable, as many women regularly found (on the “new middle class,” see also Barchiesi 2011; James 2014; Niehaus 2012; Offe and Standing 2011; Southall 2016). Such claims can be disputed or denied, and oftentimes people go to great lengths to refute or evade requests by indirect means that cannot be attributed to them directly. As such, this book reveals how moral relations of care, generosity, dependence, and obligation are intertwined with the tactical concerns of livelihood strategies under conditions of economic and social insecurity.

Kinshipping practices cover a broad terrain. Kinshipping might involve leveraging the governmental Child Support to request support from other sources. It might involve giving a child the father’s surname—isibongo in Zulu—to firmly locate the child in that lineage and enable claim-making on the father’s family even when the father was absent. It might include chronicling one’s stellar caregiving on the body of a child through cleanliness, well-ironed clothes, warm hats, and full cheeks. Or, it might involve making connections with others, via a child. For example, few Point women would say they had friends, yet they did talk about having people:

Z: Do you have someone who helps you if you need something?

M: Yes, there is someone. She is my ears.

B: How so?

M: She calls me when she knows a place that needs workers; she helps me with things like that.

B: How do you know her?

M: Her child is smaller so I pass clothes to her when my child is finished.

Acts of redistribution help solidify different kinds of social relationships such as those between kin, those between lovers, those between neighbors, and those between patrons and clients, practices that have long been documented by scholars (Barnes 1986; Bayart 1993; Bratton and van de Walle 1997; Ekwensi 1987; James 2014; Smith 2003; Tibandebage and MacIntosh 2005; Vansina 1990; Weinreb 2001). These exist within a political economy where power and prestige are acquired through “wealth in people,” or dependents (Barnes 1986; Guyer 1993; Guyer and Belinga 1995; Kopytoff and Miers 1977; Miers and Kopytoff 1977; Vansina 1990; Smith 2004). In addition to redistributing resources, exchange practices forge these “ties of dependence” through the obligations of reciprocity they entail (Swidler and Watkins 2007: 150; Polanyi 2001). Such ties enable people to weather social and economic insecurity by preserving the potential for future support (Shipton 2007).

Finally, in the absence of robust state support, kinshipping generates recognition and shores up political belonging. I use belonging as Feldman-Savelsberg does to encompass “relatedness based on 1) social location 2) emotional attachment through self-identifications and 3) institutional, legal, and regulatory definitions that simultaneously grant recognition to and maintain boundaries between socially defined places and groups” (2016: 8). Alongside the multilayered definition of citizenship already given, this reveals how belonging is assembled and reassembled through a collection of immutable (gender, race, nationality) and mutable (class, language) characteristics; caregiving actions (caring for elderly kin or sending nieces and nephews to school) (Thelen and Coe 2019). Kinshipping is a means of negotiating these multiple spheres of belonging. Via kinshipping, women forge webs of relations—within households, between lovers, between neighbors, across communities, and between states and citizens—that are the very structure by which economic resources are distributed and social reproduction is enabled. It is a process through which women imbue their juro-political citizenship with relationality.

In this book, I draw kinship theory into an analysis of citizenship in order to show how citizenship is fashioned in layered relationships through which rights and entitlements, duties and responsibilities are negotiated. In so doing, I bring together historic contributions of Africanist anthropology to kinship theory and stateless political systems with theories of the state under late capitalism (e.g., Fortes 1969; Holston 2009; Hutchinson 1996; Mbembe 2019). The anthropology of kinship arose from scholarship on stateless societies. While these scholars ethnographically showed how kinship organized politics, their theory of kinship maintained a Eurocentric distinction between the domestic and the politico-legal as differently functioning domains. This separation was retained in later theories that viewed the absence of kinship in political processes as the mark of a modern social order (for a genealogy on the maintenance of this separation see Thelen and Alber 2017). This has been frequently critiqued, most widely by feminists. Nevertheless, a presumed opposition between kinship and the (modern) state has endured, notably in citizenship studies. It reverberates in contemporary scholarship that attempts to bridge the divide through examinations of patronage, nepotism, corruption, or ethnopolitics. Yet, such scholarship reproduces the notion that kinship logics represent political malfunctioning. Instead, I align with scholars who view kin-based critiques of power as potentially transformative (see contributors in Englund and Nyamnjoh 2004). In these formulations, critiques of the state, for example, as bad kin, do not posit a solution as less kinship, but kinship appropriately done (Englund 2008). They seek to order their dependent relationship with the state away from patriarchal oppression and toward “paternal” care and positive obligation. Relational citizenship advances a theory of belonging that is not defined by patronage between people and politicians but rather as articulated through webs of relational obligations. I thus join my foremothers in challenging a persistent presumption that kin relations are antithetical to the political processes of modern states by ethnographically demonstrating how women use kinship logics to turn entitlements into substance and rework citizenship.


1. The names of my interlocutors have been changed in accordance with their wishes.

2. My use of “theory from the street” rather than the more commonly used “theory from below” is inspired by Ryan Cecil Jobson’s call during a 2022 panel at the American Anthropological Association conference in Seattle for anthropologists to be “relentless evangelists for ordinary people.” Theory from the street shares with theory from below the commitment to take seriously the analytic work of people often excluded from places of dominant knowledge production. However, the location of “the street” evokes an urban public space and seeks to not inadvertently harden hierarchies of “above” and “below” that both orientations seek to disrupt. Julie-Anne Boudreau also uses this phrase in her work at the intersection of state policy and urban life in Mexico (2019).

3. South Africa has a highly variegated history of multiple colonialisms whose laws articulated differing forms of political belonging. Though Portuguese explorers came to South Africa in 1488, the extractive labor relations that characterize colonial rule began in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a small settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. From 1652 to 1910, understood as an early period of colonialism, there were bitter power disputes between the Dutch and the British. In 1910, four colonies were brought together to form the independent Union of South Africa. Described as a government of “self-rule,” political decisions were made by predominantly white male landowners who implemented internal colonial-style laws that systematically separated and regulated the labor and lives of the majority population who was overwhelmingly excluded from white priveledge. Called the segregationist period, these policies further entrenched white power and economic gain and laid the foundation for apartheid. Beginning in 1948, apartheid retained and elaborated South Africa’s segregationist framework and hardened the legal boundaries between racial groups. While some apartheid legislation began to unravel in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t until the first democratic election of universal suffrage in 1994 that colonialism is thought to have ended in South Africa.

4. Both white and male allies were of course a crucial part of this activism, as South African historiography has effectively covered.

5. I take up Cole and Durham’s suggestion that the term regeneration, rather than reproduction, signals a dynamic potential for the nature and terms of these bonds to change (Cole and Durham 2006; Kowalski 2022).

6. I am indebted to Gillian Feeley-Harnik for the terms kinshipping and kinchopping to describe the processual and contingent nature of kinship bonds.

7. My work aligns with the communitarian tradition that takes the nation-state to be one in many nested and overlapping layers of belonging. These may include space-based, local communities, ethnic or racial identity groups, or supranational groupings all of which comprise citizenship (Avineri and De-Shalit 1992; Daly 1993; Marshall 1950; Phillips 1993). Emphasizing this layering is part of a broader move in feminist scholarship to incorporate gendered and non-Western centric visions of belonging by decentering the nation-state from conversations about citizenship (e.g., Pateman 1988; Vogel 1991; Walby 1994; Yuval Davis 1999).

8. In a 2008 survey conducted by Afrobarometer, South Africans were offered a number of statements that reflected different understandings of state power. Overwhelmingly, they chose the phrase, “People are like children, the government should take care of them like a parent” (Afrobarometer 2009: 4). While this is a source of great frustration for those who emphasize a rights-based liberal democracy, scholars like Englund remind us that such kinship-based understandings can offer powerful forms of critique and claim making (2006; 2008). Further, it is not only citizens who make such claims, politicians also use the idiom of parenthood (frequently, fatherhood) and the nurturance it implies to legitimize their political roles (Schatzberg 2001).

9. This literature is vast, but some notable examples of this phenomenon are (Ciccia and Sainsbury 2018; Lister 1994; O’Connor 1996; O’Connor, Orloff, and Shaver 1999; Orloff 1993; 2009). For work discussing the dynamic nature of dependence, see Brown (1995) and Fraser and Gordon (1994). It is important to also note that there are feminist theorists of welfare in South Africa such as Shireen Hassim and Frances Lund who are highly cognizant of and attentive to the value that poor women place on their interdependent relationships and do not necessarily embrace the more extreme goals of independence promoted by some women’s rights scholars.

10. Relational citizenship is a theory of citizenship as both multilayered and embodied (Yuval-Davis 1999). Key debates in citizenship studies have centered on whether citizenship is best understood as a relationship between an individual and the state (as in liberal theory) or whether it is mediated by other belongings (as in the communitarian tradition). A related debate, of particular interest to feminists, is also whether citizens should be understood as abstract, universal beings or as particularly situated. Through its emphasis on interdependencies, relational citizenship seeks to account for people not just as members of racial, gendered, or classed groups, but also the ways in which blackness becomes gendered and classed or womanhood becomes racialized and classed, and so on, in ways that shape dilemmas of interdependence and people’s response to them (Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989; Yuval-Davis 2007).

11. In one sense this issue has been addressed by scholars who rightfully note the blurriness between ideas of productive and reproductive labor and those who theorize various forms of commodified social reproduction and, notably, the potential to refuse reproductive labor (e.g. Berg 2014). Here I join a growing number of scholars thinking through social reproduction, belonging, and obligation in a late capitalist era of wageless life (to name a few: Bhattacharya and Dale 2020; Fraser 2022; Jaffe 2020).

12. Scholars of queer kinship have long been at the forefront of theorizing the constructed nature of kinship ties, and the recent turn to a framework of “queer transculturation” is an important reminder to attend to the asymmetrical power relations present in theorizing queer kinship in the Global South for predominantly Northern readers (Mizielińska, Gabb, and Stasińska 2018). Using this framework, Yarbrough beautifully describes the relative political value of normative versus nonnormative kinship in the context of marriage in South Africa (2018).