Labour, laziness and distribution: Work imaginaries among the South African unemployed

Monday, 21 October, 2019 - 15:00

Presented by : 

Hannah Joy

Jointly written with Liz Fouksman

A wealth of new writing has emerged around the future of labour, focusing on thinking beyond employment in imagining the futures of ‘surplus populations’ no longer needed by labour markets. These new imaginaries include radically expanded forms of redistribution, such as unconditional cash transfers or universal basic income. But what are the views of the ‘surplus populations’ themselves? This paper uses ethnographic research in an informal settlement in South Africa to understand why the unemployed or precariously employed poor are themselves often reluctant to delink labour and income. In particular, we focus on the discursive use of ‘laziness’ by urban unemployed young men. The varied (and often contradictory) ways these men employ the laziness discourse sheds light on the logics linking wage work and money in our informants’ social imaginaries. It illuminates the underlying contradictions and complexities of such logics, including those of gender, relational obligations, expectations of citizenship, and the inevitable tensions between aspirational hopes and economic realities. To begin thinking ‘beyond the proper job’ (Ferguson and Li 2018), we must unravel and understand such nuanced logics that continue to bind together hard work, deservingness and cash – even for those left out of labour markets.

General seminar arrangements

  • The WISH seminar is hosted on-line every Monday afternoon at 16:00 - 17:00 SA during the teaching semester.
  • A printable version of the seminar schedule for the current year is available here.
  • For the details of the Zoom meetings, please sign up for email notices at
  • Participants must read the paper prior to the seminar, which is typically available by the Friday preceding the seminar.
  • The WISH seminar archive is available here