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Banking in the bush: waiting for credit in South Africa's rural economy

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Drawing on fieldwork in a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal, this article shows how people experience government and other institutions in a patchwork of encounters spread out over time, disjointedly, and via various intermediaries. Aspirations change over time and in response to these encounters. Specifically, the article focuses on the setting up of a government-regulated microfinance institution. I consider the divergence between state-led models of ‘entrepreneurship’ and the practice of individuals' engagement with the organization and their own expectations about it. One government stipulation was that the bank demonstrated its effective operation through regular inflows and outflows of cash, prior to paying out any loans. As such, members were encouraged to invest money in order to qualify for a loan at a later stage. I describe the factors that enhanced or inhibited the willingness of members to invest in the bank, arguing that these strategies were influenced not only by existing levels of economic vulnerability experienced by individuals, but also by particular expectations of the bank, including its perceived reliability, stability and degree of formality vis-à-vis existing conceptions about banking. The example demonstrates that processes of formalization are often partial and incomplete. Rather than examining them in the narrow terms of success or failure, the article focuses on the intersection of moral and economic actions that emerge in the prolonged states of limbo that they create.

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