‘Asihlali Phantsi!': a study of agency among isiXhosa-speaking women traders in a Cape Town township

Doctoral Thesis


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This study examined how isiXhosa-speaking women street traders in Cape Town's Langa Township exercised agency in responding to similar structural constraints and opportunities that affected their livelihoods. Drawing on Giddens's Structuration Theory and Sen's Capabilities Approach, I unpacked and conceptualised agency as five dimensions (reflexivity, motivation, rationality, purposive action and transformative capacity). This analytical framework was then used to assess the ways in which women from a poor township community exercised their agency as street traders. A case study methodology (n=25) was adopted using participant observation and in-depth interviews. Miles and Huberman's thematic coding approach guided the qualitative analysis. The study found that structurally imposed constraints were rooted in class, multiple sources of power dynamics, and material constraints related to health; while opportunities emanated from market mechanisms of supply and demand, community social support systems in the form of social capital and social networks, family support and statutory social welfare programmes. Other key findings included resistance to patriarchy, cultural norms and practices, such as submission to abusive partners and unreasonable demands from extended family members. The findings report structure and agency as mutually constitutive in so far as familial circumstances, previous work experience, social capital, educational achievements and temporality either reinforced or diminished the participants' agency. Three profiles of agency among the women traders emerged from the data. The profiles demonstrated varying degrees of enablement (most enabled, moderately enabled and least enabled) and that individual agency was a distinguishing factor. Reflexivity, as a dimension of agency, presented as more fluid and malleable than the other four dimensions. The findings show that agency is reasonably elastic and it can expand capabilities and opportunities for enablement. Finally, the study proposed a diagnostic tool for assessing and enhancing agency with potential applications in entrepreneurial training for development. My study contributes to a theoretical understanding of the concept of agency, the role it plays in development at a micro-level and criteria for assessment. Furthermore, lessons learnt from the profiles can be applied to development practice and entrepreneurial training among African women traders.