Movement of the Mamas

by James Tayler

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This text comprises excerpts from the South Africa affiliate’s reporting.

“Saving is our heartbeat”, any member of South Africa’s Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) will tell you. “This is how we organise, how we build trust, open spaces to talk and share, find ways to support each other and change our lives. We don’t collect money, we collect people.” Over the last twenty-five years the South African federation has grown from a handful of savings groups to 626 savings groups in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces with 43,999 members.

SDI’s approach to organizing is grounded in women’s led savings schemes, in which each member saves small amounts and does so with the support of their own collective savings group, so they are able to improve their own lives, and that of the wider community. Solidarity is central to their approach. Savings schemes are encouraged to federate to have stronger influence on city and state government. In the process of coming together they learn about their respective needs and challenges and respond collectively. If one member’s family does not have enough to eat, the group may decide that week’s savings will be spent on putting bread on their table. Once one savings scheme is formed, they share their learning with other marginalised people around them and support others to form schemes of their own that can join the network.

As one saver notes, “you can request to withdraw the amount you saved by going to the savings collectors and treasurers of your savings group. This was better than the bank! Through joining a savings group I learnt to put money together and come together with other people. The moment you share your problem with friends you create a society. For example, if I did not eat, I could sit together with other savers and put money and food together. Over time I became rehabilitated from being a heavy smoker and drinker.

“The leaders of these savings groups are women – about 95%. Men cannot save, that’s true. But women savers are very strict. They don’t play; they are professionals. My trust in the savings group increased because of my savings book and the record book of the savings collector. Every time I gave my savings to the collector, both of us needed to sign my savings book and the collector’s record book to prove that the money was collected. As a savings group we chose people living inside our community to be the collector, treasurer and secretary of our group. Saving is not only about collecting money but also asking people about their feelings. For example, the collector asks you how you are, why you didn’t attend the savings meeting last night.”