Money and sociality in South Africa's informal economy

19 Nov 2013

This article examines the interplay of agency, culture and context in order to consider the social embeddedness of money and trade at the margins of South Africa’s economy. Focusing on small-scale, survivalist informal enterprise operators, it draws on socio-cultural analysis to explore the social dynamics involved in generating and managing wealth. After describing the informal sector in South Africa, the article elucidates the relationship between money and economic informality. First, diverse objectives, typically irreducible to the maximization of profit, animate those in the informal sector and challenge meta-narratives of a ‘great transformation’ towards socially disembedded and depersonalized economic relationships. Second, regimes of economic governance, both state-led and informal, shape the terrain on which informal economic activity occurs in complex and constitutive ways. Third, local idioms and practices of trading, managing money and negotiating social claims similarly configure economic activities. Fourth, and finally, encroaching and often inexorable processes of formalization differentially influence those in the informal sector. The analysis draws on these findings to recapitulate both the ubiquity and centrality of the sociality at the heart of economy, and to examine the particular forms they take in South Africa’s informal economy.