Law, Kinship, and the Formal Processes of Middle-Class Reproduction in Johannesburg, South Africa

This project investigates how legal and bureaucratic processes mediate inheritance in South Africa, as a window into the formal institutional dimensions of middle-class reproduction. This reveals connections between patterns of accumulation and new forms of marginalization and inequality. The research involves in-depth ethnographic and qualitative research throughout 2017, tracking the processes of inheritance in Johannesburg – including the drafting of wills; advice and assistance; the administration of estates in the South Gauteng Master’s Office; and disputes at the High Court. This range of entry points offers insight into the struggles and negotiations that occur when kin die intestate (without a will), as well as the opportunities, obstacles and choices encountered by individuals and families trying to grapple with wills. The research further involves working with access-to-justice initiatives, entailing close collaboration with lawyers and civil society experts in the field of inheritance.
This component therefore examines legal, social and economic problems and choices around inheritance, often in a context of limited and fragile accumulation, which is itself inflected by financialized debt. Key issues include the differential ability to navigate bureaucracy and legal process; the marginalisation of widows; and the broader effects of inheritance on kin relations. This component will thereby contribute towards an understanding of the dynamics of wealth accumulation and inheritance, at the personal and family-unit levels, in a context of gender, class and racial inequality.
Provisionally entitled ‘Passing on the Family House: Law, Kinship, and the Formal Processes of Middle-Class Reproduction in Johannesburg, South Africa’, it focuses on inheritance and expanded home ownership. This has been a central yet contentious issue during the fragile expansion of South Africa’s middle class. As apartheid crumbled, the state enacted a series of messy processes through which rented and quasi-owned ‘family houses’ in black townships would become private property. This meant registering individual owners who came forward on the basis of Native Affairs permits for co-habiting families, a process made murkier still by uneven official record-keeping and the sheer complexity of residence patterns.
Decades later, title holders are dying, and disputes over the legitimate ownership of these ‘family houses’ have become intense. The formalisation involved in reporting deaths catalyses disagreements. Revealing the huge gap between popular understandings of ‘the family house’ and the legal framework of individualised ownership, it makes explicit who is entitled to what under the law, and who is excluded. Indeed, reporting estates – legally or fraudulently – can be a way to use the power of the state, in a context where houses are increasing sold and accumulated as speculative resources, not simply shelter. As state institutions and processes refract people’s plans and demands, the article will reveal the importance of inheritance for our understanding of middle classes. Such a focus throws into relief the legal, material, symbolic and socially productive dimensions of property, as people strive to pass it on or acquire it. In particular, it tracks the legal-bureaucratic processes themselves – from paperwork to judgments, disputes to expert advice – extending our analytical reach across generations, as class reproduction is mediated by the state.

This project forms part of the project The new middle class in Africa in comparative perspective, convened by Debora James (London School of Economics).

Project leader(s):
  • Max Bolt (University of Birmingham)

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