Ironies of Solidarity

Insurance and Financialization of Kinship in South Africa

Erik Bähre


An ethnographic study of how financial products and services affect inequalities and conflicts in South Africa.

Set in one of the world’s most unequal and violent places, this ethnographic study reveals how insurance companies discovered a vast market of predominantly poor African clients. After apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa became a ‘testing ground’ for new insurance products, new marketing techniques and pioneering administrative models with a potentially global market.

Drawing on Rorty’s notion of irony for understanding how the contradictions inherent to solidarity affect inequality and conflict as well as drawing on a vast array of case studies, Ironies of Solidarity examines how both Africans enjoy the freedoms that they have gained in financial terms and how the onset of democracy effected the risks faced in everyday life. Bähre examines the ways in which policies are sold and claims are handled, offering a detailed analysis of South Africa’s insurance sector.

Author Bio

Erik Bähre is Associate Professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. He is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator Project Moralising Misfortune: A Comparative Anthropology of Commercial Insurance and author of Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township.

Table of Contents

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. An ironic analysis
  • 3. Hope and redistribution
  • 4. Penetrating a new market
  • 5. The Janus face of inclusion
  • 6. The enchantment of abstract finance
  • 7. Transforming mutualities in business
  • 8. Death as moral hazard
  • 9. Conclusion: Ironies of solidarity


'In this book’s surprising and sharp argument, Bähre questions the association between neoliberalism and financialization in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Offering a mode of analysis attendant to the ironies of political economy, prying open the iron cages of our own limited analytical imagination, Bähre revises old concepts and introduces refreshingly new ones.'
Bill Maurer, University of California

'This important book explores how the growing market in insurance services for the poor in South Africa mitigates risks for some while precipitating family conflicts. Bähre’s thoughtful and compassionate study confronts simplistic assertions about neoliberalisation by showing how financial mechanisms can enable practices of solidarity which have both positive and negative dimensions.'
Maia Green, The University of Manchester

'Bähre warns us against nostalgic notions of social relationships as inherently good and caring, and the market and money as polluting this imagined paradise. This book should be required reading for every student of society in the 21st century.'
Mamphela Ramphele

'Bähre does extraordinary conceptual labour, grounding the analysis in frames which allow the narrative to proceed while challenging and strengthening economic and social thought. The result is an excellent work, useful for those interested in South African society and politics, Africanist scholars, economic theorists, historians, and scholars with an interest in robust interdisciplinary work.'


Publication Date: 15 January 2020
264 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781786998583
Hardback: 9781786998576
eBook ePub: 9781786998545
eBook PDF: 9781786998569
eBook Kindle: 9781786998552

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