Poor Men with Money: On the Politics of Not Studying the Poorest of the Poor in Urban South Africa

Cape Town street vendor

Poverty and violence crisscross ethnographies of the African city. This is especially pronounced in anthropological research from South Africa, where considerable efforts are made to describe and document poverty and violence across segregated cityscapes. Correlations between poverty and vulnerability are often asserted in the literature: the “poorest of the poor” are presented repeatedly as the persons most susceptible to violence and harm.

In this paper I aim to complicate how poverty and vulnerability are conventionally linked. Drawing from fieldwork on young African migrants’ informal work in Cape Town, I show how hazardous slight gains in prosperity can prove. Once the migrants’ entrepreneurial ventures took off, the youths were recast quickly as persons of suspicion and acceptable targeting. I present an episode in counterpoint of other migrants losing their property and means of livelihood. Countering expectations, these migrants’ descent into poverty’s inconspicuousness protected them during an outbreak of anti-immigrant violence. The ethnography shows poverty and vulnerability to be closely connected facets of urban life but more dynamically than assumed and not associable in predictable ways. I argue that anthropology’s disproportionately narrow focus on the most economically and socially disadvantaged members of society risks eclipsing small yet significant fluctuations in wealth and well-being among the urban poor as a whole. Such a politics understates their diversity.

Source: Current Anthropology via JSTOR (Ahead of print)

Photo Credit: Jan Truter



Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher Current Anthropology (The University of Chicago Press)
Year 2015
Author(s) James Williams
Other Numbers Volume 6: VIII, pg 15
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