Nqe Dlamini, a development worker acting as a consultant to SaveAct, said everyone in the group should know the total holdings as well as their own credits and debits, so records can be reconstituted if they are lost to fire or other disaster. There’s no computer backup.
It takes 30 minutes to drive to the nearest bank, most of the route over twisting dirt road. None of the stokvel members has a car, so doing business with the bank means paying less than $2 for a taxi van or bus into town, besides banking fees.
The nearest police station is just as far away as the bank. While Nhlazuka may look pastoral, its villagers aren’t naive.
“There’s crime in every community,” said Sibongile Nzuza, a SaveAct community worker.
Mtshali must be present to open the money box in his home. Another stokvel member holds the key to the cabinet, another the key to a chain around the box, and a fourth the key to the box.
Nzuza said a member of another stokvel — a grandmother affectionately called “Gogo” — talked too widely about where and when cash would be distributed to members. So after she got her share that year, “They said, ‘Gogo, we’re not taking you back.’”
Stokvels traditionally dissolve at the end of the year, in time for Christmas shopping. In what is known as a payout, members get their savings, plus a share of any interest earned. Mtshali’s stokvel charged 10 percent interest on loans, and many of its 13 members ended up with a small profit.
Verhoef said records show the first stokvels were formed at the end of the 19th century along South Africa’s southeastern coast. The members were Africans who worked at scattered farms owned by European settlers. They got together at annual cattle shows, and the name stokvel comes from stock fair.
In South African cities today, middle- and high-income blacks are forming investment clubs based on the stokvel model that buy real estate or stocks. But for the most part, stokvels remain havens for the poor, dominated by women and resistant to innovation.
“These organizations don’t have to change,” Verhoef said. “That’s the way they survive.”
Mtshali, the only man in his stokvel, failed to persuade members to put off this year’s distributions and try to start a nest egg for opening a business. The women stuck with tradition, paying out an average of $45 each in savings, plus about $12 each in interest.
Flora Mkhize, the group’s 56-year-old secretary, contributed to the stokvel from her government pension and said she would use her payout to help buy school uniforms for her grandchildren. Philisiwe Ndlovu, an 18-year-old high school student whose mother sent her money every month to save, also planned to buy school supplies — and a new dress for Christmas.
Ndlovu spoke proudly of having learned to economize, plan and work with elders in her village to decide on loans and police their repayment.
“And at the end,” she said, there was “the good news of getting your investment back.”
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