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Social Dynamics: A journal

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Domestic diversity and

fluidity among some African
households in Greater Cape

Andrew Spiegel , Vanessa Watson & Peter


Department of Social Anthropology, University

of Cape Town

Urban Problems Research Unit, University of

Cape Town

School of Architecture and Planning,

University of Cape Town
Version of record first published: 16 May 2008

To cite this article: Andrew Spiegel, Vanessa Watson & Peter Wilkinson (1996):
Domestic diversity and fluidity among some African households in Greater Cape
Town, Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies, 22:1, 7-30
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02533959608458599


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Domestic diversity and fluidity among some

African households in Greater Cape Town
Andrew Spiegel (a), Vanessa Watson (b) and Peter
Wilkinson (c)
(a) Department of Social Anthropology
(b) Urban Problems Research Unit
(c) School of Architecture and Planning
University of Cape Town

The notion of 'domestic fluidity' has only lately acquired some academic
currency, both as phenomenon and concept. Our interest in the problem of
domestic group pliancy and labile household compositions derives from
recognising the problems of categorising settlement processes within Cape
Town's African population where both individuals and households seemed
to move almost continually. Our realisation that such movements implied
great diversity in, and mutability of, domestic units led us to question certain
assumptions that seem to underpin policies directed at the management of
urbanisation processes, particularly the provision of housing and basic
infrastructural and social services (Spiegel et al. 1994).
For reasons we have just begun addressing, housing policy formation has,
until very recently, tended to invoke a mode of 'standardising' or
'normalising' discourse.1 Its central, if often only implicit, point of reference
is a model of stable, nuclear family-based households with regularized
patterns of co-residence, commensality and income-pooling, as well as
shared 'life projects' or 'ideologies of purpose'. Households are thus
understood to be key social (and spatial) sites of processes of'domesticity' the "practices and functions of (re)production and consumption at the microlevel" (Ross 1993: 25) - that are understood to operate autonomously within
each such unit.
Moreover, when policy discourse has considered household dynamics, it
has tended to conceptualise them in terms of standardised domestic group
social dynamics 22.1(1996): 7-30

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social dynamics

'developmental cycles' that assume that each household forms first as an

adult couple - or small nuclear family - subsequently expanding to include
that couple's children, or additional children. Later, as the children become
adults, they disperse to establish separate households, the original unit
experiencing a period of contraction and, finally, replacement. From this
perspective, adult members of a household are always seeking to consolidate
their assets, first to support a dependent family and then to provide for their
old-age. It therefore suggests that they attempt to marshall resources in
different ways at different life-phases, and that successfully doing so
requires at least pro tempore 'consolidation'. In other words, households
manage to stabilise their patterns of resource use in ways they find both
materially and culturally appropriate to their current and anticipated future
circumstances. The lineaments of shared 'life projects' or 'ideologies of
purpose' can be found in people's efforts to secure stabilised patterns of
Such conceptualisation of households as relatively stable domestic units
reveals clear parallels with assumptions that seem to underlie uses of the
term 'consolidation' in contemporary housing policy discourse and practice.
The term, apparently derived from work by John Turner (1968), refers to a
process of low income households incrementally improving their living
conditions over time. Sometimes it denotes upgrading of individual
dwellings by their occupants through, for example, gradual replacement of
wood and iron shacks with brick and mortar houses. It is also used to signify
processes whereby communities, by more or less collectively organized
action, secure for themselves basic infrastructural service provision and
community facilities. In both senses, one might argue, housing consolidation
requires a degree of domestic consolidation (and vice versa), not least
because it demands substantial, relatively long-term commitments of
However, as Guyer (1981) has indicated, high mobility of individuals
between domestic units is widespread in contemporary Africa. The result is
uncertainty about whether, where and how domestic consolidation occurs, at
least partly because
there is no set of stages through which family structure, economic conditions, fertility,
urbanization, and so on, change together, in step, and in the same direction (Guyer
1981:89; cited in Ross 1993:35).

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diversity and fluidity in greater Cape Town

What this suggests, if it is valid in contemporary South Africa, is that

household compositions and domestic consolidation processes are probably
considerably more complex than the present assumptions of policy makers
apparently allow.
It is not our purpose here to track the implications of this hypothesis for
the formation of housing and other social policy. Rather, we propose to
explore the various ways in which domestic fluidity has been experienced by
people in a small sample of African households in Cape Town. We are
interested, specifically, in the range of domestic situations our sample
reveals, in how different experiences of domestic fluidity (or stability)
reflect various consolidation strategies and trajectories, and in how these
might be related to broader processes of political and economic, as well as
social and cultural change.
The paper consists of four further parts. In the next part, we briefly
review ways in which the concept of 'household' has been used in southern
African anthropology. We then establish a definitional schema to enable us
to distinguish between various dimensions of household formation when we
interrogate our case material. This we do in the main section of the paper,
where we illustrate both the degree of differentiation that exists between the
African households included in our sample and the way that this is related to
processes of urbanization and consolidation. Our conclusion points to some
issues that we believe subsequent work needs to address.

Previous conceptualisations of 'household'

Early social anthropology saw the nuclear family as the quintessential
domestic group. Regarding child-nurturance as the central feature of the
family, Malinowski (1913) took the term 'family' to imply that the nuclear
family unit is a universal norm (in Reynolds 1993). Southern African
anthropologists followed this lead with Schapera (1935), working in
Botswana, and Ashton (1946) and Sheddick (1948) in Lesotho, accepting the
idea. Moreover, residential group compositions of other than nuclear family
type were seen as aberrant. Even researchers concerned with labour
migration tended to take the nuclear family as the norm (Hobart Houghton
and Walton 1952: 51-64; Wilson et al. 1952: 46-61), seeing all other
domestic group compositions as variants (in Murray 1981: 102; Spiegel
1990: 254).

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social dynamics

Concern to locate domestic groups in their prevailing local social

structures also resulted in pictures of relative domestic stability. While
Fortes's (1958) notion of the developmental cycle in domestic groups helped
diminish the significance of the nuclear family idea, it still treated each such
group as persisting through cyclical time. Every variation v/as treated as a
facet of the phase a domestic group had reached in a developmental
sequence common to all societies, but still reflecting each society's social
structure in the form that sequence took.
Southern African anthropological concern with the effects of oscillating
migrant labour in the 1970s, and with apartheid-induced relocation in the
1980s, led to new perspectives on domesticity. A widely accepted new
definition granted that rurally based households were always in flux with
income-earning individuals sometimes there, sometimes not.2 The
household was thus seen as 'stretched' across space, with one or more
members absent from the rural home to earn income, and the rest {de facto
members) remaining in the rural home, subsisting on the remittances those
absent members provided. The primary criterion for defining the household
thus became its characteristic role as an income-sharing unit.
In addition, 1970s work on migrant labour supplying Lesotho showed
that synchronie variations in domestic group composition were neither
variations on a nuclear theme nor simple manifestations of a cyclical
domestic developmental process reflecting an isolated Sotho social structure.
Rather, they reflected income dependence on labour migrancy and a cyclical
process of domestic unit development in Lesotho at that time resulting from
unreliable wage-earnings and the need to invest in rural social and material
'safety nets' (Murray 1976; 1981; 1987; Spiegel 1979; 1980; 1982; see also
Quinlan 1983; Ferguson 1990).
Furthermore, there was increasing awareness that labour migrancy's
separation of husbands and wives both hindered co-residence or
commensality of domestic units of a nuclear family type and led to the
formation of various types of co-residential and commensal units (James
1985; 1987; also Webster 1987). These were certainly not based on a nuclear
family model. As shown for other parts of the world, changes in capitalist
production processes led to transformations of prevailing residential
arrangements (see Smith and Wallerstein 1992). In James's cases, however,
these took forms dependent on people's previous experience of domesticity

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and their expectations about norms of reciprocity in such arrangements. As

she put it, the various household structures found in such peripheral areas
have "evolved via a series of complex historical processes" (such as people's
insertion into the migrant-labour nexus) the details of which are specific to
both time and place (James 1987: 98; also Guyer and Peters 1987).
The analytical shifts these arguments caused were not, however, adequate
to deal with the phenomenon of domestic fluidity, a phenomenon that
longitudinal micro studies subsequently revealed. The 'stretched' nature of
domesticity was recognised. Variations in domestic group composition were
understood as determined by the specificities of insertion into industrial
wage labour. But households were still viewed as maintaining relatively
fixed boundaries. On-the-ground work showed, however, that it was not only
wage-earning men who were sometimes absent from rural domestic units.
Once recognised, evidence accumulated of women, children and the aged
shifting between quite labile domestic units (Spiegel 1986; 1987; Sharp
1987; Jones 1993; Ramphele 1993; Ross 1993). By implication, then, the
concept of domestic units as bounded households with relatively static
compositions has also become inadequate to deal with empirical realities.

Defining household and domestic group

Given these complexities, it is necessary to define the terms we use to avoid
conceptual confusion. In our recent research project this became clear as we
discussed our data and ourselves fell into the same traps we had been
enjoining policy makers to avoid.
Our sampling procedure had taken our research assistants into visiting
units we loosely described as households: defined as those 'eating from a
single pot'; that is, engaged in commensality (Spiegel et al. 1995a). Yet
respondents did not always keep to this strict definition when listing
members of their households. We too have caught ourselves thinking
sometimes of individuals as members of households of the 'stretched'
variety and at other times of those same individuals as members of
households that comprised just their local co-residential group, with
resulting analytical confusion.
Conventional definitions of the household build on notions of peasant
domestic units whose members are thought to reside together, to be engaged
as productive units in peasant-type activities, to pool the income from both

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their co-operative and individual productive efforts for the benefit of all in
the group, and to draw on a single shared pool of resources deriving from
their income-generating efforts (Netting et al. 1984). They are thus
understood as both productive and reproductive units.
There are four criteria to this functional definition of household: coresidence, productive co-operation, income-sharing and commensality. The
second fell into disuse with the demise of independent productive bases for
most domestic units and the concomitant insertion of households within an
industrial capitalist nexus (Smith et al. 1984; Smith and Wallerstein 1992).
Subsequently, the criteria of both co-residence and commensality have also
had to be reconsidered, at least in the southern African context of labour
For most contemporary researchers, the resulting predominant notion of a
household in southern Africa refers exclusively to the criterion of shared
income and its expenditure. As indicated above, household has come to be
defined as a group within which income and expenditure flows are
concentrated, even if the members of that group are resident in widely
dispersed parts of the sub-continent. This, then, is what we have called the
'stretched' household: its members cannot be co-resident or commensal for
most of their lives. Yet, despite the distances that separate them, they share a
common purpose or commitment to "a continuing responsibility to
contribute towards [the household's] maintenance" (Murray 1976: 54).
Our reference to this sense of a common purpose reflects a concern with
recognising people's own criteria for defining their households in that they
are said to comprise members of a group who submit themselves to the
demands of a 'life-project' requiring income sharing and expenditure on
projects thought to be for the common good of the group. Such 'lifeprojects', then, help to determine the lifestyles of members of households. In
contexts of rural-urban migrancy, they also strongly affect, if not determine,
the manner and the location, urban or rural, in which ambitions for domestic
consolidation are realised.
Although such a sense of common purpose was often clear from the
discourse of our informants about their 'households', many of their domestic
units were, at the time, households in terms of only one of the other more
functional criteria of definition. Moreover, they formed often quite fleetingly
assembled groups. As far as is possible, we have thus chosen to replace the

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term household with one more precisely describing the functional

characteristics that unify any particular domestic unit. We have thus tried to
use terms such as 'co-residential', 'income-sharing' or 'commensal' unit, but
continue to describe the entities in the sample simply as domestic units.

Domestic diversity among Cape Town's African population:

some case material
Interviews were conducted in 37 domestic units in seven different types of
African residential areas in Cape Town.4 Although not statistically
representative of Cape Town's African population, they indicate that the
model of a small, stable, nuclear-family 'household' is simply one f a range
of domestic unit sizes and structures that are often only short-lived. The
underlying factors affecting domestic composition and stability are highly
complex; we here consider only the social and material resources sustaining
such units' members and the 'world views' or 'life projects' motivating
Broader economic, social and political structures and processes also
influence the immediate material circumstances of domestic-group
formation and reformation. So do the cultural practices and world-views
through which people understand and act in the world, precisely because
they shape responses to broadly-based events, even as they are confirmed or
mediated by the flux of such events. As Wood (1980) points out, adequate
explanation of population movement patterns demands integration of both
'macro' and 'micro' determinants. While we recognise that the experiences
of domestic unit formation and change that we document are products of
significant macro-historical processes, space constrains our explicating these
links here (see Spiegel et al. 1995b).
Long-time Capetonians in our sample told of their removal from central
city locations into new city-edge townships as, first, early segregation
policies and then, subsequently, apartheid's Group Areas Act were
implemented. Others were affected by the 'coloured labour preference
policy' and influx control regulations which forced many into lives of
oscillating labour migrancy between urban workplaces and rural bantustan
homes. And a purposeful restriction on African housing provision in the
region added to the constraints on them right up to the 1980s.5 The result

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was that many established domestic units became 'stretched' over the space
separating Cape Town from the Transkei and Ciskei 'homelands'.
By the mid-1980s, however, both housing and employment possibilities
had changed for Africans in the Western Cape. On the one hand a continuing
economic recession reduced availability of employment opportunities; on the
other hand possibilities for securing land in an informal settlement grew,
both before and after influx controls were lifted in 1986. The opening up of
large serviced areas on the city edge at Khayelitsha also attracted people
willing to endure a poor location in return for the chance of more space.
Violence was a further significant factor setting people on the move at
this time. Issues of territorial control, factionalism and patronage (Mehlwana
1992; Cole 1987), sometimes linked to control over the lucrative taxi
industry, resulted in various informal settlements being burnt to the ground,
and many areas becoming unsafe. People moved both within Cape Town and
beyond in search of more peaceful places to live.
Macro-historical processes such as these, in conjunction with micro-scale
material and motivational factors, have resulted in high levels of domestic
unit diversity and fluidity, and this was clearly reflected in our small sample.
Of the 37 domestic units where interviews were conducted, only one fitted
the assumed stable, nuclear-family norm.
Mr and Mrs N.M. (A5) and their three young children were all born and raised in
Cape Town. They lived together in the formal house they had bought in Khayelitsha,
and they saw themselves as staying there for the foreseeable future. They had
managed this on the strength of Mr N.M.'s formal employment in Khayelitsha, and
possibly because there were no other major claims on their income, such as the
maintenance of a rural base or the support of other kin.

Domestic units such as A5 lie on a continuum ranging from very small,

sometimes single-person units at one end, to very large complex units,
consisting of extended kin or a combination of kin and non-kin, at the other.
We give examples here of cases which span this continuum, as well as the
domestic-unit 'stretching' that underlies much of the domestic fluidity in our

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Smaller domestic units

Individuals interviewed in some of the smaller domestic units had come to
Cape Town to seek employment, leaving all or most kin in rural areas. We
found some such domestic units in migrants' hostels where migrants often
shared a room with other migrants and (sometimes) their own, and others',
kin (Ramphele 1993).
Mr G. (G5) shared a hostel room with two other men but cooked and ate his food
separately. His wife and five children were in the Transkei where he had a house, land
and livestock. His regular job provided him with sufficient to remit R150 to R200 per
month in order to consolidate resources there to secure his eventual retirement: "I am
here because I work here. I have a house back home, a house in which I shall live once
I retire ... or once I stop working". G5 thus constituted only a commensal unit while
Mr G. retained his membership of a 'stretched' income-sharing unit that appeared also
to share a common life project centred on rural consolidation. He explained his
presence in Cape Town in such terms when he said that "Cape Town is not the right
place where one could stay with their families ... what with children not wanting to go
to school and stoning cars. I would not want to see my children grow in this place ... I
know at the back of my mind that this is not my house ... that I have my house in the
Transkei ... I am here only to work for my family." He viewed his stay in Cape Town
as entirely temporary and was quite positive about the fact that his close kin did not
stay with him, primarily because of an expressed concern for what he saw as the city's
corrupting influences.

Not all migrants with this attitude and kind of life project settled in hostel
accommodation. Mr T. (D3), staying in a backyard shack, was in a similar
position. With his wife and child in the Ciskei while he was formally
employed in Cape Town, he was also part of a 'stretched' income-sharing
unit. Committed to consolidating his rural home base, he was saving money
in the bank "because, if I could, I would [like to] build a house and live at
home. Maybe buy a tractor and farm". Yet by having moved out of hostel
accommodation in 1984 and into a backyard shack, he had created an urban
domestic unit that had a greater degree of urban security than a hostel bed,
particularly since it sometimes included his wife when she visited and
occasionally also provided accommodation for his younger brothers when
visiting from the Ciskei. For the most part, however, he maintained an
atomised domestic unit in town, with just himself as lone resident, and it was
that unit we encountered when he was interviewed.


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It is often assumed that only men leave their dependants elsewhere in

order to progress economically. However, Mrs K.G. had in some respects
adopted a similar, albeit urban-oriented, strategy.
A divorced mother, Mrs K.G. (A5), had placed her two children at her distant natal
home with her parents to whom she remitted regularly for the children's upkeep. Their
absence allowed her to pursue various formal and informal income-generating
activities in Cape Town free of child care responsibilities. Unlike the male migrants,
however, Mrs K.G. did not have a rural base of her own. And although linked through
her children and her remittances to her parents' household, she did not perceive their
home as her own. Indeed, her sole expressed aim was to consolidate her position in
the urban area so that, once her children were older and able to take care of
themselves, they too would come to reside with her: "They want to stay here
permanently. But I don' t have the time [to care for them] because I am working and
stay [live in] at work". She was therefore energetically consolidating her urban base,
and had done so quite successfully: she had bought herself a formal house in
Khayelitsha which she occupied only over weekends, during off-duty times from her
'sleep in' domestic job in a Cape Town suburb, and where her children visited during
school holidays.

Other apparently small domestic units comprised older people whose

dependants had left to live and work elsewhere. C5 included two older
women from the same rural area now sharing a two-roomed house in an
older formal township.
One of the residents of C5 was a pensioner in whose name the house was registered,
the other a 60-year old divorcee (Mrs D.) with a child-minding job in the
neighbourhood. The latter's residential rights were insecure because of tensions
between the two women resulting from the former 'promising' the house to someone
else on her death. The unit also contained a woman pensioner who lodged in a
backyard shack and prepared food for all three of them in addition to paying rent.
Although Mrs D. had four adult children, they offered her little support - in part, it
seems, because she was divorced. Her three sons lived in Cape Town, the oldest, a bus
driver, in his paternal uncle's formal township home, the younger two (twins) in their
deceased father's Khayelitsha house. Her daughter had previously left her baby in Mrs
D.'s care while she worked as a civil servant in Queenstown. During this time she sent
money to Mrs D. regularly. But when she took the child with her, the remittances
stopped, as did Mrs D.'s assumed membership of a 'stretched' income-sharing unit
that included her daughter.
Recognising the increasingly monadic nature of her life, Mrs D. sought her own place
where, with a pension she hoped soon to receive, she could reside, cook and eat alone.


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Yet, given her low paying job, and the difficulty a single woman would have had in
securing her own formal accommodation, this seemed an unlikely outcome.

Larger domestic units

The larger domestic units sampled had formed for various reasons. The
largest (B2) had 11 members comprising an adult sibling pair, their
respective spouses and four of the one couple's children as well as a
grandchild, plus two of the other couple's four children (Figure 1). Their
absent children were in different places in the Transkei.






Figure 1: Kinship diagram of B2's composition at time of
interview (including absent children).
Those recorded as resident members have been marked *

All members of B2 were relatively recent arrivals in Cape Town; M.N., whom our
respondent, N.N., identified as head of the unit, had arrived in 1986 and lodged with
his father's sister and her husband in a Crossroads shack. His wife N.N. followed early
in 1987. B.N. joined them in mid-1987 and M.N. and N.N.'s children (S.N., M.K.N.,
B.B.N., T.N.) came intermittently thereafter. When violence broke out in Crossroads
in 1989, M.N., N.N. and B.N. built a shack in a nearby informal settlement for
themselves and the children. B.N.' s wife and children, N.L.N., N.D.N. and M.H.M.,
arrived in 1991 to stay in the new shack. Soon factional violence led to that shack
being burned, and they moved to a temporary shelter on invaded land while awaiting
serviced sites and houses that had been promised them by a local shacklord.
Their dependence on just two small incomes - M.N. was an airport cleaner earning
R450 per month and B.N. a farmworker earning R40 per week - had undoubtedly
prevented them securing more adequate accommodation elsewhere, or from bringing
their remaining children from the Transkei to join them, although their stated aim was

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to remain and consolidate an urban base in Cape Town. "I have planned to live here in
Cape Town ... because my family is here ... I have family there at home, but we are
planning to bring them here ... I want to stay here for the rest of my life ... I want
even to die here. It will not matter we do not have houses. Tell me, who in his right
mind would want to live in Transkei? The life there is difficult if you are not
educated." Given these intentions and opinions, changes in the composition of their
domestic unit seemed likely if alternative, and affordable, land were available to them,
and if they could muster the resources to bring their remaining dependants to the
metropolitan area.

Other large domestic units comprised kin groups that were either multi-

generational or laterally extended, or both. One example is domestic unit A2,

in Khayelitsha, which was laterally extended and comprised eight members
(Figure 2).


Figure 2: Kinship diagram of A2's composition at time of interview.

Those recorded as resident members have been marked *
Both Mr G.R. and Mrs P.R. had grown up in Cape Town. For many years they shared
accommodation with relatives in older formal townships. Their 1989 move to their
own formal house in Khayelitsha revealed a clear intention to consolidate in a more
nuclear-type family, separated from complicated kin networks of which they were
previously part: "we could see we had no future there [in the husband's mother's
home] because we had children, and we felt the kids should grow in our own house".
Mr G.R.'s formal employment and Mrs P.R.'s part-time employment had allowed
them to establish a separate home, but not as an exclusively nuclear family.

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Both N.Q. and M.P. had been taken in to fulfil kin-based obligations: N.Q. was Mrs
P.R.'s last-born sister. Even before their mother died when N.Q. was six years old, she
had been fostered by her mother's sister who earlier had also intermittently
accommodated Mr G.R., Mrs G.R. and their children. When the mother's sister died,
N.Q. first remained where she had been, was then moved to another sister living near
a school in Khayelitsha and then to Mrs P.R., first at Mr G.R.'s parental home and
then at the couple's Khayelitsha home. M.P. had been found abandoned with nonrelatives elsewhere in Khayelitsha and they had taken him in because, in Mrs P.R.'s
words, "he was dumped by his mother, and we found him lost ... Since the child
belonged to the sister of my husband we decided to take him and make him our own

Domestic unit E5 also comprised eight members. In this case its size
reflected its multi-generational and laterally extended nature (Figure 3).





0 PB!*

Figure 3: Kinship diagram of E5's composition at time of interview.

Those recorded as resident members have been marked *
Mrs V.B. had taken responsibility for children and grandchildren despite her R250 per
month char job and her highly unstable accommodation; prior to settling in a
Khayelitsha site and service area in 1990, the family had lived in a tent in an adjacent
transit camp. V.S.B. and D.B.'s mother was deceased; P.B.'s was in the Transkei
although she had earlier been placed with Mrs V.B.'s brother in Johannesburg. When
he died Mrs V.B. fetched the child to live with her in Cape Town.

Remaining in Cape Town appears not to have been a matter of choice for
many, including Mrs V.B. Hers was one of various interviews where it
became evident that some people in the Western Cape's townships have
been trapped in the city by poverty. Unable to maintain her rural Transkei


social dynamics

house or visit there, Mrs V.B. indicated she had little alternative to staying
on where some chances for generating income existed:

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I am forced to live here because I have neither front nor back. Even at home I only
have that empty house and nothing else ... I do not have the strength to go from here.

Her rural past, she thus explained, had failed to create circumstances of
security for her and her future seemed equally bleak.
Spatially divided ('stretched') units
As already indicated, there was extensive variety, in both size and
complexity, among the domestic units our study sampled. That complexity
increases significantly with recognition that some were just parts of spatially
divided income-sharing units with bases in both urban and rural areas and
members who (usually) shared a sense of common purpose. This complexity
has been recognized in other studies on population movement in South
Africa (Mabin 1990).
'Stretching' of income-sharing units can occur for diverse reasons and in
various ways, as our data illustrate. As shown, some men who were parts of
spatially divided income-sharing units with a strong sense of common lifepurpose, simultaneously also comprised what might be described as 'single'
male members of small urban food-consuming units. Other such 'single'
men's lives revealed more complex patterns involving membership of two
income-sharing units, one in town that served limited domestic and mutual
support purposes and another in a rural area that was committed to a longerterm life project. Mr B.D. (Gl) provides an example.
A migrant in a hostel, Mr B.D. shared a room with his two brothers, their wives, and a
'homeboy' and his girlfriend. This group comprised an urban income-sharing, as well
as co-residential and commensal unit that co-operated in food preparation and
consumption, and pooled some income to facilitate that process. Yet Mr B.D. regarded
the hostel room as merely a temporary place to stay and not a home in which he might
invest: "There is no one who is in his right senses who can waste his money on a
hostel. We have our houses back home. We only spend money on our houses in the
Transkei, not here. We are here just for work."
Mr B.D.'s primary, explicit, commitment was to a rurally-based income-sharing unit
that comprised himself, his wife and their four children, aged 13 to 22, who remained
on their Transkei property. His longer term project of rural consolidation included
buying a tractor to generate extra income through ploughing other people's land: "I

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am saving my money to buy a tractor to plough my field. When I have managed to

buy this tractor I will do business there in Transkei. People will hire me to plough
their fields. I will get money. I won't just retire and do nothing."

Various migrants interviewed seemed to prefer such an arrangement. As

many studies of labour-exporting areas of southern Africa have shown,
circumstances in rural areas render it necessary for productive people to
generate income at a distance (usually in or near urban areas) and leave
dependants to maintain the rural base. Yet, given secure access to agrarian
resources, many migrants have reckoned that their basic reproductive costs
can be greatly reduced, with their rural base providing a 'safety net' for
times of unemployment, ill-health and retirement. For that reason they
continue to remit and use their incomes to fashion rural homes and networks.
From the perspective of people such as Mr B.D., however, such an
arrangement was not only economically motivated. Indeed, he justified it
culturally in terms reflecting a 'world view' of the city as polluted,
dangerous and temptation-ridden: "I like to live here [in the hostels] because
it keeps me away from the ills of the townships". By contrast he saw the
countryside as the proper place to live:
All the black people came from the Transkei and Ciskei. We only came here to work.
Some people stay here for a long time and forget their true homes ... They do not
even know the graves of their ancestors. I know deep down that I do not belong here. I
belong in the Transkei, where my real home is."

Commenting on his hopes for his children's future, he added: "I want all my
children to grow there in the Transkei ... I know how life is very difficult
here. I do not want them to suffer as I did."
It is possible that Mr BD' s expressed sentiments are more common to an
older migrant generation (he was 55) than to younger migrants. Yet the view
of rural areas as people's 'real home' recurred repeatedly amongst people in
'stretched' income-sharing units, and even amongst some respondents with
rather tenuous ties to rural areas. Culturally based perceptions, as well as
economic factors, clearly underpin how people understand what constitutes
their 'households', whether 'stretched' or not.
Another important aspect of spatially 'stretching' income-sharing units is
the placement and re-placement of children between units, for various
reasons and with concomitant implications for changes in the size and
composition of residential and commensal groupings.

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social dynamics
When interviewed in 1992, Mr and Mrs O.Z. (B4) were unemployed, and living with
two of their four children in a plastic sheet shelter on invaded land. Their previous
shack elsewhere had been incinerated during taxi-related conflict leaving them to
survive by begging from neighbours. Their other two children were with Mrs O.Z.' s
sister in the Transkei; Mr and Mrs O.Z. lacked the income to support them in Cape
Town. The two now with them had also previously lived there but had come to Cape
Town for health-service reasons before fire destroyed their shack. Had they had the
resources, Mr and Mrs O.Z. would undoubtedly have sent them back to Mrs O.Z.'s

Similarly constrained by poverty and a lack of adequate accommodation,

were the residents of D5: Mr and Mrs N.M. and four of their eight children
were also victims of this fire.
Now accommodated in a backyard shack, this co-residential unit had the advantage of
one formally employed member: Mr N.M. worked for a local authority. Their other
four children lived in the family's Transkei house, with Mr N.M.'s father's brother's
son, a teacher. In their case both the cost of transport and the inadequacy of their
shack accommodation prevented them reuniting more than occasionally. Mrs N.M.
said: I always think that it is a shame that our children cannot visit us here in Cape
Town, because we do not have a house to accommodate them ...They have never put
a foot here in Cape Town and I miss them. It is going to be my husband who will go
to the Transkei this December. I would like us all to go there but we do not have
sufficient money.

The desire to secure a good education for children is another factor that has
served to create 'stretched' income-sharing units. Because schooling in the
former homelands tended to be less affected by boycotts and disruptions, and
possibly because students there may be less tempted to drop out of school, a
number of people interviewed indicated that their children were in rural
areas primarily in order to complete their education. Among them were Mr
and Mrs N.M. whose 'stretched' and laterally extended unit, as we have just
seen, included school-going kin in the Transkei as well as others in town.
Another was the unit A3 which occupied a formal Khayelitsha house.
A3 was the residential base for Ms M.M., two of her children and a grandchild by
another daughter, as well as a female companion, Ms A.S., "while she is looking for a
place to stay". The latter looked after the children weekdays when Ms M.M. was at
her 'sleep-in' domestic job. Ms A.S. had two children, both with her sister in the
Transkei because "there are no school boycotts in Transkei. Let me say it is not
common and it happens in certain places but it is not serious."

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Domestic unit dynamics

While the spatial 'stretching' discussed so far reflects a rural-urban divide,
our sample also included examples of intra-urban 'stretching' and domestic
fluidity, as the following case shows.
The opening up Khayelitsha for African residential occupation in 1984 and the
subsequent creation of site-and-service settlements made possible the formation of
new residential and commensal units, and the reconstitution of old ones. In 1982,
when Mrs R.V. (D6) had brought her two youngest children from the Ciskei to Cape
Town, she had had to leave the formal township house where she was lodging as a
'single' tenant and move into a series of backyard shacks. Her daughter E.V. moved to
Khayelitsha with her new husband after marriage. But, by the time of our interview,
E.V. was leaving her own (premarital) daughter to spend each week with her maternal
grandmother, Mrs R.V., and another grandchild, the son of another daughter in the
Ciskei. Both, however, spent weekends in Khayelitsha with E.V.

Also noteworthy were the number of cases in which people, especially

children, moved temporarily and intermittently between domestic units.
Mrs N.M. (El) of an informal settlement in Khayelitsha, frequently accommodated
and fed a neighbour's child, partly to conceal from him the extensive domestic
violence in his parents' home, partly because of the dire poverty there. Mrs N.M. said
"H, I regard him as one of my children ... he- sleeps where my children sleep".
Importantly, there was a reciprocal child-care relationship between H.' s mother and
Mrs N.M.

All the cases above indicate extensive movement of individuals between

residential and commensal units, and resulting frequent changes to the size
and structure of these units. Significantly, therefore, the range of unit sizes
and structures already considered cannot be seen as static. Annual and biannual movements of Cape Town based migrants to visit rural kin,
intermittent movements of rurally based wives and children to visit husbands
in Cape Town, trips by school children from the Eastern Cape to visit kin
during school holidays, visits between the widely separated African
residential areas of Cape Town, are all causes of the domestic fluidity
marking so much of the current lifestyles of African people in the Western
Detecting the extent of fluidity in a study such as ours is limited by its
'snapshot' nature and its focus on domestic units rather than individuals.
Yet, as the data above show, we have generated clear indications of its
incidence, as is reflected further in the following case.

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social dynamics
Ms N.S. (Bl), now aged 53, came to Cape Town from the Transkei in 1979. She
stayed with a relative of her mother in a wealthy suburb where she found a sleep-in
domestic job. Having lost that job, she moved into her brother's formal township
house, and was joined by her youngest child from the Transkei. But when that place
was "getting too crowded" she moved into a shack with a man, his younger brother
and four other people. In 1987 she built her own shack in another informal settlement
and was joined by the other members of her present extended kin-group (Figure 4).
When this area was burned out in 1991, they moved to an invaded site to await
relocation to a site and service scheme promised by their shacklord.

Ms N.S.'s experiences also illustrate that domestic fluidity and individual

domestic mobility are often a direct consequence of 'macro' processes,
including factional violence and, in an earlier period, state repression, that
has traversed African areas in Cape Town over the last several decades. This
raises two issues of importance to policy makers. Firstly, we need to
establish for how long those particular factors are likely to continue to
influence domestic diversity and fluidity given changes recently wrought to
the socio-political environment, and the extent to which they are likely to be
felt in the Western Cape. Secondly, we need to ask what new combinations
of factors will prevail that are likely to affect domesticity in the future.


b PR*

1 NTR* 1




I BFt*


Figure 4: Kinship diagram of Bl's composition at time of' interview.

Those recorded as resident members have been marked *

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Although it remains statistically unrepresentative, our data demonstrate a
level of domestic diversity and fluidity among Africans in Cape Town that
throws any model of a 'standard', nuclear family based household into
question. Current work under the auspices of the Western Cape Communitybased Housing Trust seeks to test this hypothesis by means of a
questionnaire-based survey of 800 randomly selected domestic units in Cape
Town's African residential areas. Already, however, we are confident that
our own investigation has revealed sufficient of the complex dynamics of
domestic change and consolidation among African households to suggest
that the 'standardized' model is inadequate and inappropriate as a basis for
policy formation, particularly in the field of urban housing provision.
The case material also allows an important methodological conclusion to
be drawn. If we are interested in tracking patterns of domestic fluidity,
research procedures must be designed around two commitments. The first is
to undertake relatively long term, 'longitudinal' studies of a number of
domestic units, rather than one-off 'snapshots' represented by a single
interview. The second is to assemble detailed biographies - urbanization and
employment histories, as well as domestic or household histories - of
selected individuals within at least some of these domestic units.
One final important point remains: we are very conscious that the
experiences and perceptions we have uncovered in our case material have
been strongly shaped by the specificity of its Western Cape context. Indeed,
we have tried above and elsewhere (Spiegel et al. 1995b) to address some
aspects of this regional specificity by pointing to the significance of
particular 'macro' processes. We believe, however, that there is real need for
comparative work elsewhere in South Africa along lines broadly similar to
those we have sketched here and we appeal to the research community to
take up this challenge. This country cannot afford any longer to allow policy
makers to continue to operate on the basis of outdated concepts and
'operational' models that have become patently inadequate. Also urgently
required therefore is a comprehensive, well grounded and contextually
sensitive analysis of the assumptions that continue to underpin much of
current urban policy discourse. South Africa's present needs are too great
and its resources too limited for critical observers not to take up these


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We acknowledge financial assistance from the Centre for Science
Development (and Spiegel from the Wenner-Gren Foundation), but bear full
responsibility for views expressed here. We also gratefully acknowledge the
assistance of interviewers Anthony Mehlwana and Ayanda Canea.


We have previously examined how policy discourse about housing need in

the report of the Task Group on National Housing Policy and Strategy (the 'De Loor
Report': Republic of South Africa, 1992) deployed the model of a 'standardized'
household to define the object of housing policy and facilitate the formulation of a
quantified programme of intervention (Spiegel et al., 1994). Subsequent statements
of policy, notably the White Paper issued in 1994 (Republic of South Africa, 1994)
and the document Home Truths: The Official Good News on Housing from the
Government and the Banks, distributed as a free supplement with all major
newspapers and other periodicals in May 1995, suggest that the new policy
framework may have been shifting to accommodate a more diverse range of needs.
However, the essentially 'incrementalist' basis of the current framework has been
questioned by Sankie Mthembi-Nkondo, the Minister of Housing appointed after Joe
Slovo's death in 1995.

Murray (1976: 54-5) provides for 'stretched' domestic units when he

defines the 1970s Lesotho household as "an aggregation of individuals within which
are concentrated the flows of income and expenditure generated by the activities of
its members".
Much feminist literature directly questions this assumption, disaggregating
households on gender lines (e.g. Harris 1981). We do not pursue this at present
because our purpose is to understand domestic-unit instability rather than to look
within such units in their stable form: but see Niehaus (1994), Bank (1994) and
Moore's (1994) commentary.
Selection of units was determined by the 'snowball sampling method'
(Bernard 1989). Interviews were coded A-G, according to the area in which they
were conducted, and then numbered chronologically. Interview codes are cited in the
text when we refer to particular cases.

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The 'coloured labour preference policy', initiated with the so-called Eiselen
Plan of 1955, was progressively tightened up through the 1960s and abandoned only
in 1985.

Our evidence is not sufficiently detailed to indicate if this difference reflects

a more general gender difference. It is tempting, nonetheless, to surmise that women
are less likely to create 'stretched' households than are men, precisely because they
are not likely to have an adult dependant to care for their other resources. The role of
mother and grandmother is important here, however.

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