Studies show that women who toil in South Africa’s informal economy, working jobs that are neither taxed nor monitored by the government, play a critical role in lifting their country out of poverty. And social workers, said Tanusha Raniga, a professor who teaches social work and community development at the University of Johannesburg, need to play a more active role in helping these women—among them those who sell food, style hair, and wash cars without labor protections or formal contracts—reach their full potential.
“There has been limited implementation by social workers to get involved in income-generating and economic-based projects, especially with regard to women-led livelihood strategies,” said Raniga, who gave the keynote address at Boston College School of Social Work’s annual Pinderhughes Diversity Lecture in April. “I think a lot more has to happen around that in the various provinces in the country,” she told students, faculty, staff, and alumni who attended the lecture, which took place on Zoom. “If we pay attention only to the clinical and the mezzo-level work that we do, without focusing on the kind of systemic and structural problems that we’re facing in society, we’re sending people we work with back into a disabling environment.”
Raniga advocated a radical transformation of the welfare system and changes to policies that disadvantage both poor people and developmental social workers, a type of social worker who focuses on pulling together community resources to address social and economic problems. In particular, she argued for the creation of a National Social Development Act to accomplish three distinct objectives: connecting women in the informal economy to strategies that help them withstand economic shocks; ensuring that services provided by developmental social workers integrate clear social and economic goals; and fostering partnerships among stakeholders in the social development sector, which aims to promote the well-being of the population as a whole.
“Social workers acknowledge that economic development that does not provide opportunities for productive employment of people and that does not consider how the intersections of race, class and gender influence people’s access to status, privilege, and power will limit social development initiatives,” said Raniga, who co-edited the book The Tensions between Culture and Human Rights: Emancipatory Social Work and Afrocentricity in a Global World.
Raniga connected one of the themes of her lecture, the need to empower women to fully integrate into the economic life of their community, to the pioneering work of the series’ namesake, Professor Emerita Elaine Pinderhughes. Her seminal research, published in the 1980s, revealed that race, ethnicity, and power strongly influence how social workers interact with clients.
“You are an inspiration to social workers all over, particularly within the Global South countries,” Raniga told Pinderhuges, who attended the virtual lecture and asked a poignant question about the informal economy during a Q&A after the talk. “Your seminal book, titled Understanding, Race, Ethnicity, and Power, resonates a lot with us as practitioners in South Africa, and has made a profound impact on how power permeates every aspect of our daily relationships, and working towards emancipatory and empowering practice is really a priority in South Africa.”
Raniga identified poverty and unemployment as two of the biggest challenges facing South Africa today. Nearly 30 years after apartheid ended, more than 50 percent of people in South Africa live in poverty and over 32 percent are unemployed.
But of those who do have jobs, almost 30 percent are employed in the informal sector. Their roles vary, with many of these 4.8 million people working as market traders, waste pickers, coal miners, nannies, or house cleaners. And Raniga’s research into sustainable livelihoods has revealed that more than 50 percent of unemployed women have entered the informal economy by starting their own small businesses to supplement the monthly grants that they receive from the government.
“The number of women engaged in businesses has increased as a result of opportunities provided by the non-profit sector and has emerged as a key developmental strategy in low-income communities, influencing public policies, societal attitudes, and socio-political processes,” said Raniga. “The community-based economic strategies employed by women to promote family well-being in South Africa,” she added, “provide evidence of how women can tap into their human capabilities and social capital to enhance income security and child well-being outcomes.”
But the rising presence of women in the informal economy—and their ability to tap into their skill sets to provide fulfilling lives for their families—has rarely led to financial investments in their small businesses. “Despite the increased visibility of women in the informal economy, financial institutions in the private sector continue to exclude women from access to micro-credit and loans, which is an obstacle to long-term sustainability of their small businesses,” said Raniga.
So what can women in the informal economy do to help make ends meet? Raniga said communities can organize to drive the development process themselves by identifying needs and then mobilizing existing strengths and assets to respond appropriately. “These,” she said, “can be drawn from their localized context in terms of knowledge, skills, and resources.”