The Second Shift: Informal Economies and Avian Influenza in South Africa

From the Series: The Naturalization of Work

Photo by College of DuPage Newsroom, licensed under CC BY SA.

As lively commodity, chickens are crucial to nutrition, food security, urban livelihoods, and the national economy in South Africa. More poultry products are consumed annually in the country than all other animal protein sources combined.

In 2017, an avian influenza (H5N8) outbreak became the most severe epizootic outbreak in South Africa since rinderpest devastated cattle in 1896 (Phoofolo 1993). The first case of H5N8 was reported in Free State province on June 19, 2017. The disease appeared next in Mpumalanga, spreading to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, probably via wild birds, and arrived in the Western Cape in August 2017, where it killed more than two million chickens at a cost of 800 million ZAR to the industry. We began tracking the outbreak in Cape Town in July 2017, conducting interviews with state veterinarians, animal health technicians, street vendors, and consumers. While there have been no new cases since November 2017, veterinarians remain anxious about cases in wild terns and African penguins, as well as the possibility of another outbreak.

Our fieldwork produced two insights. First, the outbreak revealed an institutional lack of preparedness, marked by a lack of support for veterinarians overseeing the response and uncertainty about vaccination, compensation for farmers, and culling and disposal methods. The South African Animal Diseases Act of 1984 is inadequate, veterinarians told us, for dealing with the challenges of contemporary biosecurity, including adhering to standards for global export and protecting national herds from global disease threats. After apartheid-era sanctions ended, South Africa joined global markets and became subject to the regulations and vulnerabilities of the open market.

Second, the outbreak made visible a relationship between the formal and informal poultry economies, mediated by so-called cull buyers who play a translational role in transforming laying hens into cull birds after their productive lives. For veterinarians, culling means destroying all birds in accordance with regulatory protocols, not their resale into unregulated township economies. Poultry producers in South Africa work with broilers or layers. The working life of layers unfolds across a number of sites, while farms specializing in internationally sourced “grandparent” stock provide breeder birds. Their hatchlings are placed on neighboring rearing farms, then relocated at eighteen weeks to begin laying eggs, which they do profitably for about a year. When their productivity is exhausted, they are culled—that is, sold to cull buyers who redistribute them to informal markets as quintessentially rural, authentic chicken, or imileqwa, in which is congealed the thick substance of domestic relations and personhood for many Black South African consumers (White 2011). When veterinarians confirmed the first influenza case in the Western Cape, the source farmer was instructed to cull birds immediately. But it soon became clear that cull meant different things to farmers and veterinarians.

Before the outbreak, half a million birds were sold into this cull-buyer market in the Western Cape every month. Ten thousand birds left the province each month to enter other economies eager for imileqwa. As the enormity of the outbreak overwhelmed containment efforts, the numbers of live hens for sale dwindled, cutting the imileqwa supply. Cull buyers began driving further from town to source live birds for customers eager for imileqwa. We argue that these chickens perform a “second shift” as they are transformed from industrial layers into imileqwa, the prototype of tasty rural, domesticated fowl.

Arlie Hochschild (1989) coined the term second shift to describe the labor of working-class mothers at home and in the formal sector. The concept highlights the articulations of productive and reproductive economies and the invisible labor crucial to the formal, ostensibly productive economy. Our case illustrates the two economies of layer chickens: first, as part of large-scale egg production, and second, after the cull, as part of an informal market for rural, authentic, tasty, natural chickens. Ordinary eating brings the two together in surprising ways, linking trade wars (imports from the United States or even “white slime” from Brazil), pathogens, food security, and obesity in unexpected assemblages.

The hens’ second shift begins with their journey into domestic economies, not as industrial by-products, but as vital actors in everyday forms of alimentation, of ordinary and ritual consumption. The second shift thus articulates with the racialized geography of (un)employment and residence across the city of Cape Town, gendered domestic relations of food preparation, skewed access to nutritious food, and circulatory migration to rural homes with its associated social and ritual obligations. In its abstracted and undifferentiated mass, chicken as labor, lively commodity, and meat is enlivened by globalized economies of production and consumption. Conversely, in their live form, chickens embody the potential for thickened sociality (see White 2011), holding at bay the undifferentiated equality of liberal subjects in the cultural work of producing social categories of difference.

From the working nature of layer hens in formal and then informal economies to the incorporation of exhausted birds into other routes for consumption, the naturalization of chickens’ work reveals new forms of the exploitation of nature and the production of lively commodities, as well as the (re)naturalization of the work of culture (Barua 2017). The interruptions of avian influenza reveal, for a brief moment, the entanglements of biosecurity, working nature, and obesogenic modalities of food production. The second shift reveals the transformative circulations of chickens’ work and the forms of value at stake in the work of animals.


Barua, Maan. 2017. “Nonhuman Labour, Encounter Value, Spectacular Accumulation: The Geographies of a Lively Commodity.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42, no. 2: 274–88.

Hochschild, Arlie, with Anne Machung. 1989. The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home. New York: Avon Books.

Phoofolo, Pule. 1993. “Epidemics and Revolutions: The Rinderpest Epidemic in Late Nineteenth-Century Southern Africa.” Past and Present 138, no. 1: 112–43.

White, Hylton. 2011. “Beastly Whiteness: Animal Kinds and the Social Imagination in South Africa.” Anthropology Southern Africa 34, nos. 3–4: 104–113.