A fictive birthday with real debts By KennyOMG

A fictive birthday with real debts

In Cape Town, the members of Zolani Club get together to celebrate the birthday of one of their members. The birthday is not real, but the debts are.


It is Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha, the largest African township of Cape Town, South Africa, when the women of Zolani Club get together. They are celebrating the birthday of Nosipho. It is not really Nosipho’s birthday, but that’s what they call it when the women give her large amounts of money, and other gifts to each other. They celebrate their relationship with Nosipho and praise her character, but in doing so they put her terribly in debt .

Zolani Club was one of the financial mutuals I have studied in great detail. These financial mutuals were set up by Xhosa women who, with the breakdown of apartheid, left the impoverished Bantustans and tried to make a living in Cape Town. It was striking that these women, but also a few men, gave each other large presents and lots of money, even though they barely knew each other and lived in dire circumstances. What were the dynamics of large debts and mutuality? How did friendship, solidarity, and feelings of belonging coincide with large gifts of hard-earned cash? And how did the women, who usually had a poorly paid job, manage the obligation to reciprocate?

After the celebration

I made these recordings in 1997 with a large VHS camera and a tripod. It was my first attempt at making recordings; my command of Xhosa was (and still is) very limited and the video would give me a detailed record of the event. My research assistant Edith Moyikwa later translated everything for me into English. I wanted to analyze how the women spoke about each other, how exactly they praised each other, and how songs and language were part of this impressive gift-giving event.

A few days after the recording I heard that Nosipho had become very ill. She suffered from a severe mental illness that to me suggested bipolar mania. Nosipho had started to give away money that she had received at the Zolani meeting and had not kept a record, so she did not know who owned her what. Soon rumour had it that Nosipho was sick because she had been bewitched, possibly by a jealous member of Zolani Club. In the video the relationships seem to be trouble-free and loving, but – and this could not be captured well on camera – there were also tensions below the surface.

Suspicions were voiced against members of Zolani Club, and others within Nosipho’s social network. People wondered who could have brought this misfortune over Nosipho? Who could have been jealous of Nosipho for receiving so much money, a huge bed, and many other gifts? Some even suggested that my video recording had made other Zolani members jealous. It were these ambiguous social processes of care and jealousy, of solidarity and rivalry that proved to be crucial to a proper understanding of these mutuals. You can read more about this in my book Money and Violence: Financial Self-help Groups in a South African Township (Brill 2007).

Two secretaries of Zolani club note down all gifts of money and the prices of the presents. One record stays with the members of the club, the other record is for Nosipho.

The ethics of delay

The recording of the Zolani meeting was initially not meant to be turned into a short documentary but only to help me analyze the meeting: I gave a copy of the recording only to Nosipho. It was only much later that I turned it into this short documentary. Over time, the technology has become much better, which has helped tremendously. When I started my job at the Institute of Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, I considered turning the VHS recording into a short documentary. The institute’s specialization in media and visual culture offered intellectual and technical support, and five hours of the original recording had been condensated to a 15- minute documentary.

This meeting of Zolani Club concerns very sensitive topics, which also contributed to the delay. It deals with large debts, witchcraft, and mental illness. When writing I could anonymize the people and the event, but I could not change people’s identity on film. This had made me reluctant to distribute it. Now, more than fifteen years after the event, it has become impossible to identify Nosipho or other Zolani members who were directly involved. The women have moved to other parts of Cape Town, some have left Cape Town completely and again others have since died. The passing of time, as well as the marginal position of those, that are the subject of this video, has helped to anonymize this event.

This blog is written for LeidenAnthropologyBlog.nl and features as a guest blog for the Human Economy Blog.


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