Thursday, 13 December 2018

Investment for inheritance among single mothers in Southern Africa

House built by a migrant daughter

By Vupenyu Dzingirai and Emelda Muchadzoka Tagutanazvo

‘It is hard being across the border. You perform things against your conscience’, remarks Tendai, a single mother who divides time between Zimbabwe’s Chivi district and South Africa.

These ‘hard’ performances include unlicensed trading and ‘kuzvitengesa’, the use of one’s body to mobilise money. Commercial sex, with both foreign and local men, is a key performance that single mothers do in the plastic shacks in South Africa’s informal settlements. The settlements are mostly found in Johannesburg and Pretoria, two big cities in South Africa attracting migrants from the region.  

Quite why these women do this is a matter that puzzled research teams under the Gender and Generation project. Whatever that caused women to risk discrimination and potential violence from their home community by choosing to earn money this way, was a very serious matter that required detailed and policy-oriented ethnography.

For single and divorced women, the desire to invest in their family of origin informs this process. Pointing to a big three bedroomed house she has built, Tendai says, as daughters they ‘want to build houses for parents’. Her friend has done the same for her parents who are neglected by the male children that customarily care for them. This reverse investment – where women target original rather than marital homes - is a widespread phenomenon in south western Zimbabwe.

This investment achieves two intended outcomes. On the one hand, it challenges the local myth of daughters as a waste of patrilineal resources. One daughter reported how her father now recognized her as more important than male siblings, ‘who neglected them and only invested in own homes’. Chiefly though, the investment convinces parents to adjust their patrimonial considerations, accommodating previously neglected daughters whose property they now enjoy. In Tendai’s case, parents situated her house on the centre of the stand, while her siblings were located in the periphery of the family home. These outcomes suggest that, unlike sons who have automatic claims to patrimony, daughters must earn theirs through investments at home of origin.

Neopatrilineal states, and organizations operating in them, will of course find women’s travelling to work and sex work immoral, distasteful and meriting criminalization. The raft of measures suggested and implemented by these old-fashioned states - border searches and deportation - addresses their patriarchal concern that women should not engage in sex work. But the measures have little to do and, in fact, frustrate, the concrete plans for southern Africa women to achieve recognition and membership in households and lineages that customarily deny them. Such practices, declares Tendai, will, ‘not end our mobility and our enemies must learn to live with this.’

Vupenyu Dzingirai and Emelda Muchadzoka Tagutanazvo are from the Centre For Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe. Email:;

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