Growing up in the township or any village, weekends were synonymous with seeing older women wearing their stokvel uniform, either for a burial stokvel or their monthly “kitchen party stokvel” as they’re famously known.
As a child, you understood the importance of these monthly gatherings because when it was your mother’s turn to host, no stone would be left unturned in making sure the house was spotlessly clean and the food was well prepared. If your mother was not hosting, she was getting ready to go to the hostess looking impeccable in her uniform. Otherwise, she would be fined for not wearing it, arriving late or not showing up at all.
My mother was the bookkeeper of her stokvel, so she had to lead by example, she never missed a meeting, she was always on time and wore her full uniform.
Everybody understands the importance of these monthly gatherings because stokvels are the backbone of many township economies. They provide convenient financial services for many black women that are poor and were denied access to finance by mainstream financial services.
Today, we see these mainstream financial institutions working on ways to co-opt the stokvel model into their financial institutions. But stokvels are more than just financial transactions and savings. They are vital informal interventions that benefit communities to reduce poverty.
The burial stokvels are vital because help is needed during the times of bereavement. They give financial contributions, groceries, and as well as “helping hands”- where the women of the burial society avail themselves on the weekend of the funeral to help the family cook for the funeral and clean up afterwards.
The women took pride in preparing the food to the best of their ability, they made sure on the day of the funeral there is enough food for the family and those that have come to the funeral.
In addition, savings stokvels provide opportunities for members to save for their families or invest in informal businesses such as spaza shops. They were pivotal in assisting these women with very little disposable income save for house renovations, school fees, and uniforms. In addition, they brought women to save together for the year-end holiday groceries.
Most of the women know that saving alone is hard and saving in a group makes them more responsible for their money. It teaches women to work together and to trust another as it is important to know each other when dealing with money. At these gatherings, they collectively came up with ingenious ways of solving their money problems. They also helped each other solve their daily life problems of being mothers and wives. They gave each other a shoulder to cry on and space to be themselves in the comfort and safety of those who were just like them.
African women have always been ingenious in solving and dealing with the cards life has dealt them. Stokvels are one of those ways women across townships and villages of South Africa have taken a little and stretched it so much that they have managed to raise an entire nation. Long live the spirit of African women this Women’s Month. Womandla!