Visualising solidarity Cover picture of Ironies of Solidarity

Visualising solidarity

At the occasion of the open access launch of his book Ironies of Solidarity: Insurance and Financialisation of Kinship in South Africa (Zed Books, 2020), Erik Bähre reflects on the cover image: What does a man on his own have to do with the solidarity of South African insurance companies?


The man on the cover is on his own in what looks like an office building. The picture is an unlikely choice for the cover of a book about solidarity in Africa. But when the publisher sent me several pictures to choose from I soon realised that this one most accurately reflected what the book is about.

Covers of books on Africa and in anthropology rarely show a single person. It is more common to see a group that is engaged in a social activity. Covers often invoke a sense of community and sharing, for example when we see people extending hands to one another, or engaging in a communal or ritual activity. Such images express sociality, belonging and togetherness. I selected such an image myself for the cover of my book on financial self-help groups among Xhosa migrants in Cape Town, South Africa (also available open access). It portrays women who joyfully sit together as they collect money on a little plate. While such images genuinely and effectively visualise social interactions, they risk reinforcing the stereotype of Africa as the continent of mutuality and togetherness.

Umgalelo Grandma Doris and her neighbours
Umgalelo Grandma Doris and her neighbours collecting money on a little plate

Yet, why would a picture of a man on his own be most appropriate for a book on solidarity? The reason is that this book examines solidarity that is marketed by insurance companies, and this solidarity remains largely invisible and abstract. The solidarity that they promote is to a large degree – for nuances you will have to read the book – not anchored in social relations.

A new market

About 25 years ago, South African insurance companies started marketing insurance policies to Africans that before, during apartheid, were not only denied their rights as citizens but were also not considered as clients for financial services. Democratisation meant that insurance companies suddenly ‘discovered’ a potential market for insurance products. They started selling health insurance and pension plans, but funeral insurance was by far the most popular product. Among Africans living in the townships of Cape Town, where I did most of the fieldwork, three in four people had at least one insurance policy.

Surprising popularity

It struck me that insurance had become so popular so fast. This popularity contrasted with the many stories from clients who were let down by their insurance company once they submitted a claim. Clients regularly stranded in the bureaucratic obstacles that the companies had put in place for them. It were not only poor and illiterate clients that suffered from bureaucratic procedures, even though they were more at risk than others. Such bad experiences circulated widely, which made it difficult to understand why insurance products were so popular.

The rapid uptake of funeral insurance struck me in particular. Many people already belonged to burial societies, which is a kind of funeral insurance organised by neighbours, fellow migrants, and sometimes clan members. Together they collected money and made sure that deceased members and their kin had a dignified funeral. Burial societies had strong roots in the community and members were actively involved in the decision-making process as well as the daily running of the society. When companies started offering funeral insurance, they did not introduce a radically new service. Nonetheless, many people started to opt for funeral insurance sold by ‘White’, physically distant, commercial and bureaucratic organisations.

Financialisation as solidarity

This empirical finding forced me to rethink financialisation, the increased uptake of financial services and products, as the introduction of a new kind of solidarity with important features. It is abstract, not embedded in social networks, and an integral part of large-scale bureaucratic institutions, right at the centre of global finance. This is not a world that one quickly associates with solidarity. Yet financialisation introduced this form of solidarity that fundamentally transformed pre-existing solidarities, especially among kin and neighbours. Instead of conceptualising these transformations in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less’ solidarity, and instead of juxtaposing solidarity to global financial markets, I argue for a conceptual framework that recognises that solidarity is inherently ironic. Solidarity is inclusive and supportive, but it is always also painful, even violent. Solidarity always also excludes people, creates hierarchies between them and is an ideological force that people need to conform to. The way in which these violent dimensions of solidarity work out depends on the kinds of solidarity that people engage in, but they are always present. It is against these painful dimensions that people evaluate the value of solidarity among kin, neighbours, fellow migrants and insurance offered by companies, recognising that none of these solidarities will ever be perfect.

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Book cover Ironies of Solidarity

New solutions, new problems

The cover tries to capture some of these ironies as we see a man on his own. Insurance policies make it possible for people to take care of each other in new ways. When insurance becomes part of kinship and other social relations it transforms them, leading to new forms of care, but also to new freedoms and social tensions. Insurance helps clients to overcome some of the inequalities that are inherent to the solidarity within personal networks, but this solution also introduces new problems. Maybe this is what one should call progress: the search for new problems that replace older problems.

The research is part of the Moralising Misfortune project, principal investigator Erik Bähre, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant Agreement No. 682467). The open access version of the book is without the cover image.


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