Natasha Vally

Graduate Student
Intellectual Biography: 

The invitation for the workshop interchangeably refers to “Global South as a source of theory” and “Global theory from the South”. I think that it is in the slippages between these two phrases where some of the most interesting conversations can emerge. My doctoral research is an ethnographic project focused on the ways that biometric registration and payment of South African state social assistance plays out in the everyday technologies, politics and lives of officials and grant claimants. Viewing this ethnography as a “source” links to theoretical debates around legitimacy, claims to truth, transfer from the object to the subject of enquiry, and discussions around fetishism and validity of certain types of methodological enquiry. Whereas “Global theory”, while prompting similar debates, speaks also to the possibility to dislocate theory from a source and to see the ways that we can view “South” as a heuristic tool partly as a way to dissolve dual ontologies. The latter also broadens the possibility to challenge questions of teleological thinking that views one site as the beginning and implies an endpoint. One important discussion then is around the differences between a global theory that takes thinking the “South” seriously and one that originates at the South. I advance that while analysing the discourses heavy in “Global”, “theory” and “South” opens up energising debates; it is the “from” that potentially exposes the political possibilities and shortfalls of the other terms.

There are some areas in my work that these ontological provocations allow me to explore. My Masters research followed “model townships” in South Africa from the 1960s and their role in political engagement and quiescence. This brought me into conversation with material on modernism and its connections with welfare in the particular context of a legislatively racialised state. As an extension of this interest in welfare and the social, I began my PhD on social assistance in South Africa at the beginning of an expansive biometric registration and payment system for state social grants.

In their research on cash transfers authors such as Hanlon, Barrientos and Hulme see instances of monetary transfers in what they call the “developing world” as the most effective way of addressing poverty. At the same time, these “South” places (whether this implies postcolonial is a further point of interest) have also been offered as the naked specimens of the negative effects of late capitalism. With regards to the former, I engage with the SASSA’s claim that South Africa’s biometric grant program is a flawed but necessary project in order to most efficiently dispense cash transfers. Or, and maybe even alongside this, scholars have proposed that these programs and related technologies in “the South” are the future of “the North”. My research is located in these interstices: where do biometric technologies for the provision of state social assistance in the form of cash transfers fit?

While undertaking this work, I am involved in nascent programs by the Black Sash and its partners about questions of social assistance, biometrics and privacy. Over the past ten years I’ve been involved in the formation and/or ongoing work of several organisations. These include the Coalition Against Xenophobia (CAX), the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel Campaign (BDS South Africa). I have also been involved in research projects with the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand. One of these was the compilation of a history of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing and Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPWAWU). While involved in activism we have engaged with the meaning of solidarity across various types of borders. It is in the very theorising of solidarity itself where the intimate connections between social justice and social policy related to assistance collide. Organising has allowed me to engage with how theoretical movements have grown out of struggles and how these struggles have required the shaping of new theoretical questions. In developing theory and action around solidarity one is confronted with the limitations and promises of debates around the imagination and construction of a “global South”.

Presentation Title: 
Traveling with CPS: The Everyday Relationships Between Cash Paymaster Services and South African Social Assistance Agency Ofiicials
Adesokan, Akin. 2013. “I’m Not an African Writer, Damn You!” Chimurenga Chronic Books, December. Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 2006. “Crafting Epicentres of Agency: Sarah Bartmann and African Feminist Literary Imaginings.” Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy. 20(1/2) (Special Issue on African Feminism).