Mobile money networks in Diepsloot (South Africa): structure, hierarchies and the law

Dr Sean Maliehe, University of Pretoria

Development and popular Financial Technology discourses extol the emergence of mobile money as a panacea for financial inclusion and economic development in Africa. This paper critically examines the veracity of these narratives. I use ethnographic insights from the township of Diepsloot, oral sources, and documents in this pursuit. The adoption of mobile money beyond East Africa, however, is marred with an array of challenges. In light of this, the paper explores the contemporary history of mobile money in South Africa, which falls within this category. Specifically, the paper explores the mobile money network system and situates individual stand-alone agents, who are typically immigrants.

I argue that the year 2015 was a historic moment in the rise of mobile money in South Africa. The government amended the Financial Intelligence Centre Act of 2001. The legal concessions and provisions passed by the government paved a way for immigrants to remit through mobile money brokering companies. The emergent mobile money networks, however, placed individual agents in a position of economic and legal marginality while privileging the South African merchants (big agents). On the one hand, the structural configuration shifted any probable punitive outcomes to the immigrant agents’ sphere of operation. On the other, the government and South African merchants maintained a normative position of plausible deniability and legal immunity.

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