ESRC Future Research Leaders 2016-19

Property inheritance, the state and class reproduction in Johannesburg, South Africa

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa's black middle class has grown exponentially. As its members age and consider family futures, new property accumulation and massive inequality have resulted in frequent disputes over who inherits. This project approaches class reproduction through an ethnographic focus on inheritance and the state – through wills and testaments, and through intestate succession. It thus attends to the role of experts and bureaucrats in shaping the dynamics of class. The project combines political-economic and cultural perspectives on class, and these with scholarship on state institutions. And it extends existing work on class and status reproduction by transcending generations. 

The research tracked the networks bringing together property, inheritance and the state. During a year’s ethnographic fieldwork in 2017, Maxim shadowed deceased estates officials, property valuators, wealth management practitioners and lawyers; attended court hearings and followed the progress of cases; sat in on inheritance-related meetings and mediations, from government offices to NGO consultation rooms to local community support services to audiences in front of magistrates; and interviewed practitioners and those experiencing the intricacies and struggles of inheritance. The project has developed through a long-term collaboration with legal NGO ProBono.Org. Together, they are using Maxim’s research findings to advise on legal reform to address discrepancies between the law and popular norms.