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Anthro-History Reading Group: “Multiple Maternities: Seeking Support in South Africa and the Performance of Motherhood”

Thursday, January 28, 2016
5:00 AM


The chapter focuses on the unemployed maternal caregivers in urban South Africa who draw upon an ever-expanding network of people and institutions to support themselves and their families. Although these women are expected to translate resources into proper social reproduction, they themselves are not regarded as legitimate recipients of aid in their own right. At every level of assistance—from state agencies to proximate neighbors—children are the only subjects seen as deserving beneficiaries. Thus women can only access resources by framing themselves as a maternal caregiver to a needy child. Drawing upon social work case files from 1960-1990 and ethnography from 2013, this chapter considers how these processes are reworking definitions of motherhood in the context of a multi-racial and multi-cultural inner-city neighborhood in South Africa. The social workers, church members, school administrators, family, and boyfriends whom women drew upon for assistance held different and often conflicting definitions of desirable—and therefore deserving—motherhood. In response, these women embodied different maternal personae, enacting the loyal housewife, the disciplinarian, the indulging auntie, or the thrifty household manager, to justify their entitlement to support from each source. This chapter asks how these diverse performances of motherhood shape the terms upon which women form relationships with their children and their sources of support under the watchful eyes not only of the state but of one’s community.