Growing up in an African, particularly Xhosa home, means that certain things are part and parcel of the culture – the ice cream container is filled to the brim with everything but ice-cream, the alarm on holidays and weekends is in fact not the clock by your bed side, but the loud and reminiscent singing of oldies tunes accompanied by a sharp request to stop sleeping and contribute to one chore or the other. Another feature, one that in hindsight, fed, sustained, and kept my family afloat was the stokvel, otherwise known as ‘umgalelo’.
There was always something special about these occasions and one could tell from the new plates, cutlery and Tupperware that would magically appear
On the last Saturday of each month, my mother and her friends would take turns hosting each other in their homes. When it was her turn, she would be up as early as 6am, leaving my sister and I with a long list of tasks that had to be completed upon her return from the shops. Of course, we would procrastinate in bed until we would hear the gate open and only then bolt in different directions, pretending to have been hard at work since she had left. There was always something special about these occasions and one could tell from the new plates, cutlery and Tupperware that would magically appear in honour of this day. Just after midday, mum’s friends would trickle in, each dressed so eloquently – as Black women tend to do when the occasion dictates.
The women would sit outside in the garden and feast while my sister and I eavesdropped on the conversations whenever we were summoned to bring water for this Aunty or make coffee for that Aunty. I vividly remember being asked to fetch a calculator from the study and when I dutifully gave it to one of the Aunties, I couldn’t help but notice the heaps of cash, in bundles of hundreds and fifty notes, that just lay before her. In hindsight, that money represented the micro economy that my mother and her friends had cultivated.
It is particularly interesting to me how certain acts and practices within African societies precede the language that is often thrust down our throats by colonialism and neoliberalism.
As I grew older, still leaving the assigned chores to the very last minute, I would realise that those heaps of cash were the ones buying groceries in the home, contributing to refurbishments in the home and most importantly, funding my sister and I’s education. The money was doing the same for my mother’s friends and their families. While I was too young to appreciate then the beauty of the financial safety net and the sense of community that umgalelo provided for these Black women, now as a young woman barely surviving under the shackles of capitalism, I am in awe of the ways in which these women came together, put their resources together, and equitably shared the total amongst themselves for the greater good of their families.
Again, at that time, I was far too young with a vocabulary yet to blossom and so the act of coming together in solidarity was unbeknown to me as Feminism. To me, it was merely a friendship, a sisterhood, a community of women committed to the welfare of their families. Now, I realise that it was exactly as Toni Morrison had elegantly put it, “It is impossible for the community to evolve, sustain, and survive without its members working continuously in a structured formation in which the members support each other.”
In ways that I’m not sure were even apparent to these women, they were sustaining a community. There was this profound realisation that they were powerful together and could go even further in community than they could individually. Economists refer to this act of communal funding that reaps greater benefit than individual funding as ‘economies of scale’ but I strongly suspect that my mother and her friends would never refer to it as such. It is particularly interesting to me how certain acts and practices within African societies precede the language that is often thrust down our throats by colonialism and neoliberalism. Black women have been mobilising amongst and for themselves eons before banks and financial institutions [that provide loans that tend to do more harm than good due to the exorbitant interest rates attached to the money] existed..
Black women ought to be praised and applauded for their foresight and steadfast belief – not only in theory but in practice too – of communal practices rooted in ubuntu and the importance of solidarity and community. In reflecting on the economy through an African, decolonial and feminist perspective, one starts to realise that the current financial ecosystem is not one that had Black people, women in particular, at the fore of its considerations. It is rooted in the individual and that kind of approach is one that is very foreign to us as a people. It lacks nuance and doesn’t fully consider all the varying factors that realistically contribute to the economy.
Furthermore, the current economic status quo fails to acknowledge the historic perils and failures of patriarchy. The gender pay gap means that women are already earning significantly less than men, which means they inadvertently have less access to resources and capital and can therefore not achieve as much as men would, in absence of the economic solutions like umgalelo that women have fostered for themselves. And the same can be said about feminism – it was borne out of a recognition that a certain group of people were being excluded and exploited – at all levels – and had to configure a politic of survival, a politic that humanised them and catered to them in ways patriarchy never will.
I am eternally indebted to umgalelo and am convinced that it is an act of rebellion against the harmful economy that was not built with Black women in mind. In dreaming of an ideal world where there is economic justice for women on the margins, communal practices like the stokvel are a perfect case study for the ways we can begin to reclaim our economic freedom.