Maverick Citizen


To ensure wellbeing of Africa’s women and girls, governments must grasp the role they play in care economy

To ensure wellbeing of Africa’s women and girls, governments must grasp the role they play in care economy

As in other African countries, the South African government does not, in practice, support care work. Under the guise of Ubuntu, care work falls to family, community health workers and other unpaid, or severely underpaid, female caregivers.

In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, the protagonist, Tambudzai, while at the market, notes the strong, unhealthy, reproductive odours of women. She contrasts these with the pleasant, productive aromas of men. The contrast is all the sharper when her family’s funds fall short, and  Tambudzai, who aspires to study at university, is told to quit school, work the fields and help raise money for her brother to continue studying.

Yet, when we think about it, what can be more productive than working to support the productivity of others?

That this is not recognised, or respected — in African societies, the world economy at large and not even by women and girls like Tambudzai — is arguably the most silent, slow violence of patriarchy combined with capitalism.

But insisting that caring work is productive does not mean that the current division of caring labour, slanted heavily towards women and girls, should not be questioned. This inequity means that women and girls perform about three times more unpaid caring work than men and boys in South Africa; five times more in Senegal; and over 16 times more in Egypt.

That the bulk of care is provided in the spheres of the family and communities in Africa, with very little support from states, translates into Africa having the most “unshared system of care” in the world.

As argued in The Africa Care Economy (ACE) Index, the care economy in Africa is as invisible as the need for care is large. This is because female unpaid labour has been normalised as the response to all major human needs: from finding fuel and water; to growing food; tending to depression and other outcomes of violence; and to caring for children, the elderly, and those suffering the range of ailments arising from decades of impoverishment.

Even though most care in Africa is not paid for, care economies exist in every single country on the continent. The demand for care comes from the population, and care is supplied, in the main, by women and girls. Another key element of any economy is laws, policies, financing and regulation — all of which are largely lacking in African countries.

Interdependence, Ubuntu and care

Known as omundu (Herero), muthu (Setswana), botho (isiXhosa), unhu (Shona), and others, Ubuntu is deeply rooted in southern Africa. Ubuntu blends ideas of interconnection and reciprocity with care. Similar notions can be found in other parts of Africa too. “A treasuring of the living”, as Kanyhama Dixon-Fyle puts it, “borne out in all relationships … family life, village life, productive activities, contacts with nature.”

But maintaining this interconnectedness has become understood, in recent decades, as the domain of females, and women-identified persons.

Sinenhlanhla Chisale explains that because Ubuntu and related ideas are porous, they have been used to enforce patriarchy. Gathering oral history in KwaZulu-Natal, Chisale found that elderly males and females speak of Ubuntu as a non-gendered concept.

Going back to Dangarembga’s 1988 novel, Tambudzai reflects on how, through the idea of reciprocity, that is part and parcel of unhu, sacrifice for the wellbeing of the whole is cultivated in female individuals far more than in males. Similarly, expressions such as imbokodo that portray women as being strong and resilient like rocks feed into the idea that care is solely the duty of women, regardless of how much other work they may be engaged in.

In South Africa, this type of gendered Ubuntu can be found in policy documents, for example the 1997 White Paper for Social Welfare, which still shapes the government’s approach. The White Paper underlines “the family” and “community” as the main sites of care, without acknowledging that women are the ones expected to do the caregiving in the vast majority of families and communities.

This lack of acknowledgement, combined with an emphasis on Ubuntu, reinforces the idea that care is a private matter of concern only to women.

In practice, like in other African countries, the South African government does not support care. Unsupported care is entrenched in the family, community health workers and other unpaid, or severely underpaid, female caregivers – under the guise of being in tune with African values.

Respecting and supporting care

Feminist economists Mignon Duffy, Randy Albelda and Claire Hammonds argue that as with building bridges and roads, the benefits of caring work are for society as a whole, making care a public good that should be financially supported by the state. They explain that because of the unique characteristics of care, increases in productivity are hard to achieve without sacrificing quality.

For example, increasing the size of school classrooms, or nurses’ caseloads, may raise productivity as it is typically calculated: more students or patients served, without increasing the money spent on wages. But beyond a certain point, larger classes and caseloads lessen the quality of teaching and nursing. Without quality teaching and nursing, effective learning and healing do not result.

Another example is in the area of agriculture, an important part of the care economy in Africa.

Female agricultural productivity is seen as low, relative to male agricultural productivity, because women in Africa engage less in the production of cash crops and export crops, which earn more cash. What is unaccounted for in this calculation is the value of female agricultural production for family food supply, and the sustenance of significant portions of African communities.

Activist-thinker Hilary Wainwright calls this the difference between “social efficiency” and “economic efficiency”.

The ACE Index shows how social efficiency is the right calculus for questions of caring work, and makes specific recommendations on how African states can respect and support care. This includes:

  • Assuring parental leave and family leave for all working people (whether in the so-called formal or informal economies);
  • Assuring full workers’ rights for domestic workers; and
  • Committing public financing for a range of care services.

In taking these steps, African states can contribute to significantly improving the wellbeing of women and girls on the continent.

According to the World Health Organization, among all world regions, women and girls in Africa are more likely to die from communicable diseases, maternal and perinatal conditions, and nutritional deficiencies. In addition, these steps can play a major part in enabling Africa’s huge population of youth – the largest in the world and growing – to become healthy, dynamic workers able to contribute to the creation of collective wealth that benefits the majority. DM

Salimah Valiani is at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria; Juhi Kasan is at the Institute for Economic Justice; and Thatshisiwe Ndlovu is part of the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation, Wits University.

Read more about the ACE Index here. Watch the Johannesburg launch of the Index here. And watch this space for the next brief.


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