Foreign aid to southern Africa has triggered the growth of a nonprofit sector that increasingly provides welfare and social support for needy populations. However, largely absent from research on this sector are substantive analyses of the contribution of voluntarism and interpersonal exchange to broader welfare development and social cohesion. This paper employs theories of gift exchange to analyze volunteer practices and localized interpretations of volunteering within the welfare structure of post-colonial Pretoria, South Africa, and Lusaka, Zambia. The analysis of ethnographic data pertaining to within- and between-group volunteering reveals particular patterns of “gifting,” which enable many southern Africans to overcome social divides, to strengthen existing bonds, and to fill gaps in the provision of basic public services. We conclude that volunteering succeeds as a form of welfare distribution precisely because of how actors frame their efforts as a gift—ensuring enduring social-relational dynamics and continued social service delivery.

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