Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Give a Man a Fish: The New Politics of Distribution in Southern Africa (and Beyond)

Event Details

Give a Man a Fish: The New Politics of Distribution in Southern Africa (and Beyond)
A lecture introduced by Frederick Cooper
October 9, 2012 - 4:00am to 6:00am
509 Knox Hall

Narratives of neoliberalism's triumph have tended to obscure from view a startling fact about the contemporary world: that, across the global South, recent years have seen not a retreat or rollback of the welfare state, but rather an explosion of new forms of welfare and social assistance. Programs of "cash transfers" to "the poor" have become central to both the politics and the political economies of many developing countries. South Africa is one dramatic case where recent expansion of a system of old age pensions and child support grants means that nearly 30 percent of the entire population will soon be receiving some sort of monthly state social assistance. These programs raise fascinating questions about the role of welfare in societies where wage labor has never occupied the dominant role it played in the "classical" welfare states of the North. They may also open possibilities for new kinds of politics. This paper explores the recent campaigns for a "Basic Income Grant" (BIG) in South Africa and Namibia as a window onto these new political possibilities. It argues that a new politics of distribution is emerging, in which citizenship-based claims to a share of national wealth are beginning to be recognizable as an alternative to both the paradigm of the market (where goods are received in exchange for labor) and that of "the gift" (where social transfers to those excluded from wage labor have been conceived as aid, charity, or assistance). Beyond the binary of market and gift, the idea of "a rightful share," it is suggested, opens possibilities for radical political claims that could go far beyond the limited, technocratic aim of ameliorating poverty that dominates existing cash transfer programs.