The formal processes of inheritance in Johannesburg, South Africa 1900-2019


This dataset results from an anthropological project investigating how will-making and the formal processes of inheritance shape the passing on of property and the making of socio-economic class in Johannesburg, South Africa. While the number of people making wills is rising, and will-making is a key focus of attempts to shape citizens as legally aware individual decision-makers, most people die intestate. Appeals to state processes have popular appeal as ways to seek official protection, despite popular awareness of limited state capacity. Family dynamics are often better enforced than the law. In post-apartheid South Africa, ending segregation meant including everyone in the same legal code, but this often enshrined the norms of the white elite. Intestate succession is seen as profound injustice because it prioritises nuclear family over kin group, and asset over patrimony, even as custom norms are often used to justify male control and marginalise widows. This is made more complicated by patchy regulation and enforcement. People’s unequal abilities to navigate the system, and even manipulate it, become central determinants of who benefits and whose version of kinship is counted. I conducted extensive ethnographic research within this system, shadowing officials and other expert practitioners; sitting in on legal advice consultations; attending court hearings; interviewing state and civil-society employees, as well people encountering the system as members of the public. This was complemented by archival research to enable the analysis of information in deceased estates files across time. The dataset consists of 1) anonymized example case studies from key Johannesburg Institutions – the Master’s Office (where deceased estates are processed), the High Court, the Magistrate’s Court, legal clinics – and from interviews with practitioners and members of the public; 2) an Excel database aggregating information about inheritance from around 500 deceased estates files over Johannesburg's history, along with an illustrative example of a deceased estates file and a document showing and explaining features of the original MS Access database.Since the end of apartheid, South Africa's black middle class has grown exponentially, as a new stratum of black citizens has moved into government and corporate employment. As more South Africans accumulate substantial property, its disbursement becomes a new terrain on which battles of kinship obligation are fought. This project approaches class reproduction through an ethnographic focus on wills and testaments: the processes through which they are made, and the disputes surrounding their execution. The result is an innovative lens that attends to the role of experts and bureaucrats in shaping the dynamics of class. It extends my interest in class reproduction, explored in my forthcoming book (CUP 2015) based on fieldwork in South Africa since 2006. In South Africa, as the post-apartheid black middle class ages and considers family futures, the project is especially timely. The project addresses key anthropological concerns. It combines political-economic (inequality) and cultural (lifestyle) perspectives on the middle class, and these with scholarship on state institutions. And it extends existing work on class and status reproduction by transcending generations. How do black middle-class South Africans pass on the property that shapes their kin's status and life chances? As will-making is promoted ever more widely, how do institutions that facilitate it inflect experiences of kinship and property before death forces the issue? How does this compare with the established white middle class? Within families, how are competing definitions of ownership, rights and entitlements judged? When expressions of future plans also become expressions of state regulation, how does this affect access to family property (e.g. township houses)? Who is included and excluded, in the bottleneck of bureaucracy and legal process? How and why are particular possessions valued? How are people's roles and entitlements constituted in the process? Amidst increasing inequality and precarity, how is will-making talked about? How have concerns about property and inheritance been reflected in the media? Given the South African black middle class's diverse history, how does will-making today compare with the past? Examining class reproduction over time means combining ethnographic and historical methods. For the former, I will begin with long-term observation in the Johannesburg High Court where disputes around wills are heard, and trace cases out from the formal probate process to fieldwork with individuals and families. Meanwhile, I will work with will consultants and lawyers, and interview judges, members of financial organisations, and the experts responsible for designing their online will templates. The former Dean of Law at Wits University (where I am a Research Associate) has expressed support, and is facilitating access to lawyers and judges. Taken together, the ethnographic research moves between institutional and personal processes, offering a bottom-up perspective that challenges easy meta-narratives. The historical research builds on ongoing collaborative work with my proposed mentor and colleagues at Wits University, on probate records as a source for South African black middle class history. This aims to capture all relevant records over a century of South African history. My proposed project explores qualitative case studies and aggregated quantitative data, offering a longer view on the accumulation and dispersal of property. Foregrounding the complex and unexpected roles of state officials and institutions raises questions for ethnographic fieldwork. For example, as executors, state officials diligently spent inheritances on behalf of deceased (e.g. minors' school fees). Meanwhile, ethnographic fieldwork on probate processes, and the intersection of personal and official, will generate questions for the archive. Outputs will illuminate will-making among today's middle class, but with the depth of historicisation.

I conducted extensive ethnographic research within Johannesburg's inheritance system. This involved shadowing officials across different parts of the administration of deceased estates, and related expert practitioners. It involved sitting in on legal advice consultations held within on the site of government administration and in the offices of legal NGO ProBono.Org. It involved attending court hearings, in Johannesburg's the High Court and Magistrate's Court. It meant interviewing state and civil-society employees, as well people encountering the system as members of the public, both via processes of snowball sampling emerging out of research in the deceased estates process. Finally, with the benefit of ethnographic insight into the composition of deceased estates files, I conducted archival research to capture a large sample of files over Johannesburg's history and aggregate metrics such as regarding wealth accumulation, wealth transfer and kinship.

Metadata Access
Creator Bolt, M, University of Birmingham
Publisher UK Data Service
Publication Year 2019
Funding Reference Economic and Social Research Council
Rights Maxim Bolt, University of Birmingham; The Data Collection is available for download to users registered with the UK Data Service.
OpenAccess true
Resource Type Numeric; Text; Still image
Discipline History; Humanities; Jurisprudence; Law; Social and Behavioural Sciences
Spatial Coverage Johannesburg, Gauteng Province; South Africa