Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Over the past several decades, global economic orthodoxy has come to believe that economic growth—or productive economic activity—is the ultimate antidote to poverty and inequality. Within this thinking (and policy agenda) entrepreneurs—as individuals who identify and execute market-based opportunities to earn profits—have come to be seen as the ideal productive citizens. But as generations of anthropologists have shown productive market activity cannot function without the myriad of direct, non-market gifts, transfers, and exchanges that humans engage in on a daily basis – exchanges that Ferguson (2015) and others label the “distributive economy.” In order to critically explore the idea that entrepreneurship can be an antidote to poverty and inequality, this paper examines the distributive resources and strategies employed by two different groups of entrepreneurs across the racialized socio-economic divides of Cape Town, South Africa—white entrepreneurs in the city’s central business district and Black entrepreneurs in the city’s largest township of Khayelitsha. My comparative ethnographic work shows how the productive capacity of entrepreneurs across these racialized class divides depends upon the distributive labor and resources that entrepreneurs engage in among their kin and social networks, and how entrepreneurial inequality is reproduced through the unequal distributive relations that are rooted in South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history. I conclude by discussing the implications that this has for the ways that anthropologists discuss the potential of distributive strategies among the poor, as well as the way that scholars and policy makers understand the economic potential of entrepreneurial practice.