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Women RISE Publications



Rights and Responsibilities in Rural South Africa examines the gendered and generational conflicts surrounding social change in South Africa's rural Eastern Cape roughly twenty years after the end of Apartheid.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, rights-based public discourse and state practices promote liberal, autonomous, and egalitarian notions of personhood, yet widespread unemployment and poverty demand that people rely closely on one another and forge relationships that disrupt the gendered and generational hierarchies framed as traditional and culturally authentic. Kathleen Rice examines the ways these tensions and restructurings lead to uncertainties about how South Africans should live together in their daily lives, with particular implications for understanding and responding to widespread gendered and sexual conflict and violence.

Focusing particularly on the women of the village of Mhlambini, Rights and Responsibilities in Rural South Africa offers compelling portraits of how they experience and navigate widespread social and economic change and presents their experiences as a way of understanding how people navigate the moral ambiguities of contemporary South African life.


"This is an unusually lucid account of the moral tensions produced in a rural South African community as people are interpellated simultaneously as rights-bearing, equal individuals and as relational persons embedded in a gendered and generational social hierarchy. It will be of great interest not only to scholars of the region but much more broadly. The rich ethnography and precision of the argument make it ideal for classroom use as well. " - Michael Lambek, author of Island in the Stream: An Ethnographic History of Mayotte and The Ethical Condition.

"Rights and Responsibilities in Rural South Africa is a thoroughly researched ethnographic account of the ambiguities inherent in local understandings of 'rights' and the ways in which they are mobilized in and through gendered interactions in communities that are experiencing severe economic precarity and significant transitions around modes of social reproduction and simultaneous 'ideological transformations'. It makes an important contribution to understandings of the impact of such transformations as described above on young rural women's lives." - Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, University of Massachusetts Boston

"This marvellous book lucidly unpacks the evolving gender and generational relations and tensions in rural South Africa after apartheid. It shows how the individual rights are enshrined in the celebrated South African constitution collide with social hierarchies of power and culturally embedded notions of personhood, rights, and responsibilities in rural communities on South Africa's eastern seaboard. Rice shows how different cultural and constitutional frameworks of rights and entitlements are a constant source of struggle over meaning, status, and identity in the rural landscape." - Leslie Bank, Walter Sisulu University in South Africa.

This book explores the impact of Covid-19, and the associated state lockdown, on rural lives in a former homeland in South Africa. The 2020 Disaster Management Act saw the state sweep through rural areas, targeting funerals and other customary practices as potential ‘super-spreader’ events. This unprecedented clampdown produced widespread disruption, fear, and anxiety. The authors build on path-breaking work concerning local responses to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic and examine the HIV/AIDS pandemic, to understand the impact of the Covid crisis on these communities, and on rural Africa more broadly.


To shed light on the role of custom and ritual in rural social change during the pandemic, Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa applies long-term historical and ethnographic research; theories of people’s science, local knowledge, and the human economy; and fieldwork conducted in ten rural South African communities during lockdown.


The volume highlights differences between developments in Southern Africa and elsewhere on the continent while exploring how the former apartheid homelands–commonly, yet problematically, represented as former ‘labor reserves’–have since been reconstituted as new home spaces. In short, it explains why rural people have been so angered by the state’s assault on their cultural practices and institutions in the time of Covid.

‘The authors expertly craft contextualised narratives and illustrate how communities, customs, home spaces and healthcare systems have developed into their contemporary forms.’ — Anthropology Southern Africa

‘Bank and Sharpley show how the pandemic exacerbated inequality, cultural conflicts, power discrepancies and contested leadership in South Africa. An excellent book, well written and convincing in its analysis, and the detailed ethnography from the Eastern Cape is simply magnificent.’ — Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

‘This detailed study shows how Covid regulations in South Africa prevented the most impacted rural communities from seeking the consolation of custom as they tried to bury their dead. It powerfully criticises the inhumanity of biocentrism in a developing society.’ — Robin Palmer, Professor of Anthropology, Rhodes University

‘A devastating indictment of policy failures driven by arrogance and contempt toward “custom”, this remarkable study also provides an exceptionally revealing account of the changing social and cultural conditions of South Africa’s rural periphery. An important and deeply insightful book.’ — James Ferguson, Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor, School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

‘A compelling ethnography of accentuated precarity in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape, showing how the pandemic has preyed upon and exacerbated existing victimhood and vulnerabilities. Bank and Sharpley explore structural inequalities inherited from apartheid and compounded by corruption and lip-service to transformation under the ANC government.’ — Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town

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