Are Households Universal? On Misunderstanding Domestic Groups in Swaziland


2Professor of Sociology at the University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa 7600, since 1991. Her previous positions included Senior Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Unit at the University of Swaziland, and lecturer in the School of Economics and Social Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK.


‘Household’ is not the neutral, universal category that census-takers have lulled us into believing, but a culturally-loaded, historically specific, Western term, like ‘family’. This article demonstrates its inappropriateness in capturing the nature of domestic organization in Swaziland through a critical examination of attempts to reduce the indigenous domestic unit umuti (rural homestead) to various constellations of household. The patrilineal homestead on traditionally tenured land persists as the dominant domestic group despite urbanization and the deep penetration of the economy by market principles. The relationship between this homestead and the more ephemeral urban households, into which many of its members are continually dispersed, underlies the linkage between urban and rural areas. Without grounding our understanding of contemporary Swazi society in the rural homestead we fail to understand female-headed domestic groups, domestic cycles, and the location and dynamics of poverty and wealth.