Social reproduction, labour markets, and economic change in South Africa

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University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The South African rural economy, and its relationship to the industrial economic heartlands, has been the focus of study for many decades. In the 1970s, Harold Wolpe provided an incisive materialist analysis of apartheid. He argued that the rural economy served as a site of the reproduction of labour for capitalism in urban South Africa, thus ensuring a supply of cheap labour. His cheap labour thesis has formed the backbone of political economy analysis in South Africa ever since. But Wolpe, and other such as Mike Morris, who studied the relationship between the rural economy and the development of capitalism in South Africa, were largely unconcerned with the highly gendered nature of cheap labour, despite the fact that women were actively excluded from mining and the industrial economy by law, and played a critical role in the reproduction of life and labour in the Bantustans. Following the end of apartheid, the legal barriers preventing women from working in the main economy were dismantled, and women’s labour force participation rose rapidly. But this legal equality has not translated into substantive equality: women in rural areas continue to be significantly worse off economically than men. Unemployment rates are significantly higher for women, and they earn lower wages than men, even where they do the same work. Women continue to undertake far more unpaid work than men, and girl and women-headed households are more likely to live in poverty. Furthermore, despite well-developed literature on South Africa’s political economy, we know little about the productive and reproductive lives of rural women in contemporary South Africa. This thesis critically re-examines Wolpe for the 21st century by providing a materialist, gendered analysis of the economy of Agincourt, Mpumalanga, an area which remains on South Africa’s geographic and economic periphery. It shows how households in this part of rural South Africa are responding to the ways in which capitalism in South Africa has changed in the post-apartheid period. This thesis illuminates the important links between labour force participation, paid work, unpaid work, and livelihood strategies among households in the Agincourt area. It argues that focusing on the role of South Africa’s rural areas as sites of the reproduction of labour, as per the cheap labour thesis, ignores the highly gendered nature of social reproduction and its contribution to the reproduction of both labour and life. This thesis further contends that the role of South Africa’s rural areas cannot be investigated or theorised without a specifically gendered approach which includes women’s work in the analysis. It adds to our knowledge about an area of South Africa which is important in its own right. And Agincourt is also emblematic of the conceptual and methodological challenges of studying rural areas and their relationship with the economic 8 heartlands of urban South Africa in a way that does not marginalise the economic lives of women. It further contributes methodologically and epistemologically to studying the intersection of paid and unpaid work. It draws on a mixed-methods approach – a household survey of 600 households and 24 in-depth interviews – to investigate women’s economic lives in this marginalised place, and to re-examine the relationship between South Africa’s economic core and its periphery from an explicitly gendered perspectiv
This thesis is submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2023
South African rural economy, Industrial economic, Economy, Reproduction, UCTD, Labour market, Social reproduction
Francis, David Campbell. (2023). Social reproduction, labour markets, and economic change in South Africa [Master’s dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg]. WireDSpace.