Ibrahim Abraham, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University
“Holy Side-Hustles: Negotiating the Past and Engaging the Present in South
Part of the panel “African Entrepreneurs: Fashioning the Future and
Negotiating the Past”, in the conference Innovation, Invention and Memory in
Africa, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Portugal, 17-19 June 2019
In this paper, I seek to understand one curious aspect of the lives of middle class, black South
Africans, which I encountered very often in my ethnographic research in Cape Town, between
2014 and 2018: the “side-hustle.” The part-time job, or the part-time plans and ambitions for
successful entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship, that promises greater
personal satisfaction and/or greater wealth, surpassing one’s present occupation.
Anthropologist Daniel Miller (2012) argues that for researchers to get to know working-class
people, you don’t ask them what they do for a living, as one’s job is usually far less important
to a working-class individual than to an academic—even if you are one of those academics
who claims the “working-class” status of your infancy of ancestry travels with you into the
upper-middle class. Instead, Miller argues, to get to know working-class people, ask them
what they do for leisure, or ask them how they spend their money, not how they make their
money, as this is where they invest their most emotional energy and feel comparatively
In many cases, it was more engaging and productive for me to talk to middle-class South
Africans about their side-hustles, or entrepreneurial dreams, than their actual jobs. This was
even true even for many academics; this is where most of their emotional energy seems to
be invested. It was a definitely true, for the less autonomous members of the black middle
class—which is abidingly a class of public servants.
Some of these side-hustles were relatively conventional, such as photography or sports
coaching, and I met many musicians, including amateur rappers, and church-based musicians
hoping to break into the lucrative world of contemporary worship music, writing pop songs
with memorable choruses and biblical themes. However, other side hustles were more
ambitious. In 2014 and 2015 it seemed that every other black university lecturer I met was
planning to open their own private college, and several were considering professional
degrees. One related complaint about South African academia, despite being well
comparatively very well paid, is that academia leaves little time for side hustles, or heavily
regulates or discourages them. One lecturer lamented that his university would not let him
run a legal practice on the side.
My research focuses on Christianity in South Africa, and my concern here will be how
evangelical Christianity shapes the side-hustle economy for members of the new black middle
class, noting here foundational evangelical concerns with spiritual sincerity—individual
conviction, in other words—and evangelizing others.
Although ministry is a not an uncommon side-hustle, rarely have I seen it presented in that
language, in either an emic or etic context. The concept of the “pastorpreneur” is more
common. Mark Jennings (2017) traces the term back to American evangelical church-planter
John Jackson (2004), whose self-published Pastorpreneur: Pastors and Entrepreneurs Answer
the Call defines the pastorpreneur, after his own experience, as one who gives up their secular
job to plant a “seeker-friendly” church—a culturally savvy evangelical church, in other words.
Jackson emphasizes the risk of pastorpreneurialism, and thus the faith of the pastorpreneur,
but the problem with this self-description, for Jennings (2017), is that in contemporary
capitalism “we are all entrepreneurs, whether we like it or not,” so Jackson is making a virtue
of a necessity.
Looking at the side-hustle as an important aspect of contemporary black South African
middle-class Christian life, I want to go backwards and engage with two foundational concepts
in the sociology of morality and religion, and the social scientific study of entrepreneurship
and economic life more broadly. Firstly, Emile Durkheim’s (1951, 1961) concept of anomie—
for him, as opposed to other understandings, anomie emerges when culture ceases to
regulate individual desire—that is create and direct desire. This is necessary, in his view, to
avoid being trapped in a system of infinite possibilities for pleasure, which can never be
satisfied, as one’s desires are no longer indexed to one’s means. Secondly, Max Weber’s
(1992) work on vocation and the Protestant ethic which offered—in a past time and place—
one way of regulating desire through denial of the self.
Deregulating desire in South Africa
I will suggest that the side-hustle ministry, or side-hustle evangelism, offers a contemporary
way to navigate two the concerns over capitalist irrationality in individual working life that
Weber recognizes: too little calculation and prudence, on the one hand, but too much
calculation and prudence on the other. So holy side-hustles offers new ways to regulate desire
in post-apartheid capitalist culture but rather than repress or deny the self, as in early-modern
Protestantism, the holy side-hustle is all about expressing the self.
The abolition of apartheid, the emergence of consumerism and credit, the establishment of a
sizable black middle class through ANC government policy, and the visible accumulation of
wealth by a small number of black South Africans, constitutes an example of what Durkheim
(1951) called a “beneficent but abrupt transition,” of the kind that creates a culture of anomie
in which individual desire becomes detached from social norms, and old moral authorities
This concept of anomie has not been popular in recent decades. South African researcher
Sharlene Swartz (2009) argues that inspired by Marx’s view of morality as the ideology of the
ruling class, the focus on “resistance, rather than conformity, to imposed moral codes
characterize[s] contemporary sociological theorizing.” Greater emphasis has certainly been
placed on locating forms of moral regulation, but under the stronger influence of Foucault
and his “little powers” far more than Marx, I think.
Further to this anomic culture of unregulated desire, the religious landscape of South Africa
is accurately theorized by Adam Ashforth (1998) as beset by “spiritual insecurity” in which
contradictory religious belief systems compete for adherents without one system ever
achieving hegemony. Foundational to this idea of spiritual insecurity is a lack of agreed criteria
for legitimacy, in part, because of a lack of agreed expertise. The truth is out there, most South
Africans would agree, but we do not know how to find it, or how to recognize it if we do.
I would argue that the same insecurity exists in the sphere of work, for black middle-class
South Africans, and those aspiring to the middle class, in an economy and a workplace which
is opaque—neither totally open nor closed. Possibilities for material and immaterial
enrichment are ubiquitous in the everyday life of middle-class black South Africa; through
clearly legitimate means, clearly illegitimate means, and also occult means—this latter idea
picking up on the work of Jean and John Comaroff (2000) on the idea of “millennial capitalism”
and “occult economies” in which the machinations of financialized capitalism present moral
problems just as enrichment through supernatural means might.
The best example I came across is the networks of young black South African men obsessed
with online currency trading; the desire is to possess algorithms producing profit without the
need to understand even the basic underlying logic of currency valuation, why the value of
one currency rises or falls. The algorithm will do the work, while giving the appearance of
cosmopolitan belonging in a globalized economy. What I am calling the opaqueness of the
economy from the perspective of the black middle class, gives rise to a class-wide sense of
anxiety bordering on a kind of neurosis. Specifically, a fear of being left behind by a system
one cannot fully understand, suspected to be corrupt and discriminatory, but desirable none
It also appeared to me in my fieldwork that there is a strong fear of missing out of the comfort
of middle class life enjoyed by white South Africans. This is a phrase Franco Moretti (2013)
dwells on in his literary history, The Bourgeois; comfort means “everyday necessity made
pleasant” and it is foundational to the middle class’s understanding of itself. As I have
explored in research elsewhere, with Shuhan Liu comparing South Africa and China (Abraham
& Liu, forthcoming), middle-class comfort is not only distinguishable from middle class luxury
or fashion—which in the European past was an attempt to mimic the aristocracy, Moretti
argues via Weber—but comfort is also distinguishable from, or entirely inimical to, a life of
“hustling” with its sense of desperation and pettiness.
Indeed, reflecting on his life of hustling before achieving success as a comedian, Trevor Noah
(2016) depicts hustling as depicts hustling as constant busyness, and insofar as hustling is
constituted by the accumulation of many small transactions, or, “maximal effort put into
minimal gain,” it also stands in great contrast to what Weber (1992) conceives of as the
conventional work ethic in northern Europe prior to the Reformation; “a maximum of comfort
and a minimum of exertion.”
More banally, there is a class insecurity present, in which a lack of agreed upon expertise
makes it impossible to fix upon a path to this middle class comfort, a process that lends itself
to a different understand of anomie, more in keeping with Merton’s (1968) notion of anomie
as the disregarding or delinking of means towards ends—often in situations of social injustice
in which legitimate pathways to success are absent or altogether too few. Crucially, this
comfort is both an economic and a socio-cultural condition; it is as much to do with comfort
in the workplace, comfort in one’s career, and comfort with one’s place in society, as it is
about comfort at home.
Hustling and side-hustling
The side-hustle seems to me to embody many of these concerns in South Africa.
There are different ideas of hustling and side-hustling in Africa, depending on one’s class
position. I draw here on the work of Grace Mwaura (2017) and Tatiana Thieme (2018) on
hustling and side-hustling in Kenya, in noting that hustling and side-hustling are not the same,
for hustling is an all-consuming survival strategy. As Jairo Muinve (2010) describes hustling in
Liberia: “hustling means capitalizing on every opportunity to procure a good or a service to
supplement income and symbolic capital.” In this way, hustling can be positioned as a more
positive or pro-active and agentive approach to informal labour, especially the informal
labour of youth. Thieme (2018) has written about this extensively in the context of young
people in Kenya, her article on “The Hustle Economy,” justifies this shift in focus, rejecting the
focus on labour markets as “pathologies of despair and deviance to be fixed,” and working
instead from the perspective of young hustlers as sites of “flexibility and innovation.” We do
need to be careful that this emphasis on Africans’ agency doesn’t overshadow the reality of
poverty and inequality, however, as Mbembe (2001: 5-6) warns that scholarship on Africa can
transform material struggles into “struggles of representation” on the page of academic texts.
Hustling manifests differently for the middle class; middle-class hustling is side-hustling,
complementing in various ways, one’s formal or usual occupation or source of income. Side-
hustling can be framed in two ways, therefore. A material side-hustle is pursuing a part-time
job or revenue stream by necessity to make ends meet and maintain one’s middle-class
status, perhaps embodying the old Marxist notion of the innately anxious petite bourgeoisie,
fearing being flung down into the proletariat. An expressive side-hustle, on the other hand, is
a side-hustle that allows one to invest their emotional or creative energy into, that for
whatever reason they cannot invest in their regular job. In both cases, the middle-class side-
hustler applies forward-thinking prudence where the pure hustler would apply spontaneous
The American website “Side Hustle Nation” (www.sidehustlenation.com) lists 100 different
side hustles, which one might rank along a continuum, from material necessity to expressively
creative. Being a human billboard is presumably the sort of thing one only does to makes ends
meet, and juggling credit care reward schemes is hardly a form of spiritually enriching self-
expression, but being a yoga instructor or a fashion model are the precise forms of expressive
and creative side-hustles that appeal to many middle-class professionals.
For the middle class, then, the side hustle is an alternative and possible replacement for one’s
existing job. As Mwaura (2017) argues, in a middle-class context, side-hustles are about
opening up new individual possibilities; they’re about expressing one’s chosen identity, or
about self-exploration and personal growth amidst uncertainty, whether uncertainty over
what precisely one’s chosen identity is, or what one is called to do, or uncertainty over the
economy. If one is willing to embrace uncertainty as a constant element of one’s existence,
then these aspects of the side-hustle can combine in the neoliberal logic of the autotelic
individual, concentrating on owning one’s own actions and outcomes, with constant
awareness and reflection upon one’s own emotions (Abraham, forthcoming).
Weber and vocation
The middle-class side-hustle, especially as it is conceived of by South African Christians, is
interesting to look at in comparison with earlier ideologies of work and the middle class self.
Notably Max Weber’s (1978, 1992) work on the idea of vocation. The vocation, as for the side
hustle, by definition, is a calling to individual, worldly action. But crucially, the vocation in
Weber’s understanding was a sense of personal commitment to the task. The basic idea of
Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis is that Protestantism took the religious discipline which
created “methodical control over the whole man,” in his words, out from the monasteries,
into secular life. By ordering the emotions, he argues, the Protestant churches created a
model of “alert, intelligent” private and public life through this-worldly asceticism. This is
different from what is widely perceived to be the case among the new middle class in the
South African public sector: a sense of personal entitlement to the salary. Weber theorized a
call to individual action that disavows the self; an ethic of “moral discipline and self-denial.”
Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a campaign for public morality; “Thuma
Mina”—meaning “send me”—which promised a new ethic of public-mindedness within the
ANC party-state. It tried to revive this sense of vocation among ANC party members and its
millions of public servants. Rather than drawing upon a tradition of Christian self-discipline,
however, as in Weber’s study of the Protestant ethic, which nevertheless recognized the
secularization and extinction of much of this mentality, the ANC campaign seemed to be
drawing upon the tradition of secular, revolutionary socialist asceticism, reimagining public
servants as struggling to achieve liberating goals.
Ramaphosa was running against the tide of history, therefore, and not only because of the
musty smell of Stakhanovism around the Thuma Mina campaign. Even in Weber’s time the
idea of the profession as vocation had eroded, he observed; Weber (1992) sees the decline
of the idea of the vocation as moral calling; there is no longer any sense of “impersonal social
usefulness” bringing glory to God through devotion to one’s task or one’s office, but a
bureaucracy of “specialists without spirit” and a professional calling has become a calling to
satisfy “mundane passions”— the sport of making money.
So rather than offering a way to regulate the desires of post-apartheid capitalist excess, a
calling to the professions or semi-professions can be an invitation to the kind of middle class
neurosis I noted, above, the precise anomic condition of unanchored desires in both
Durkheim and Merton’s theories of anomie as the decoupling of means and ends. One finds
evidence for this in the resistance to competence and productivity testing in the South African
public sector, for example, and the phenomenon of diagonal promotion—underperforming
bureaucrats being moved around the public and private sectors to give the illusion of
Christian side-hustles and the regulation of desire
What I was finding in my engagements with the black middle class was that some form of
spirituality, or an explicit religious ethic, proved effective in regulating capitalist desire in
contemporary South Africa.
Whereas social scientists studying the changing nature of work have offered broad
observations about movements away from salaried professions, to creative expression and
leisure, in the culture of expressive individualism I was encountering concrete examples of
religiously grounded side-hustles that sought to perform personal wholeness as holiness. The
verbal slippage between holiness to wholeness as completeness comes through in a modern
evangelical classic, Life-Style Evangelism, by Joseph C. Aldich (1981), mentioned to me by
several people during my research. For Aldich, personal holiness as “wholeness” is a rounded,
successful life, and holiness links with “blamelessness”—the precise attitude Weber (1992)
identified in the pious bourgeoisie, confident their blessings were earned.
The extent to which this anxiety exists among the black middle class is South Africa is
debatable; there is a prominent discourse of entitlement to share the economy of a country
one governs politically, even though it is a rare black bourgeois who does not have
impoverished relatives. But this wholeness and blamelessness seems to me to be precisely
what is preformed and projected through this lifestyle evangelism. One’s identity is not
invested in a working world that is dubious and possibly corrupt; the side-hustle of music,
sport, or mentoring, is where the Christian self can find full expression.
What I encounter from middle-class black evangelicals, and aspirational middle-class black
evangelicals, is a concern that they must be trusted with success—worthy of success, worthy
of blessing—and so part of that security then comes from aiding and uplifting others, as well
as emotionally disinvesting from salaried work to the blameless sphere of monetized leisure,
creativity, or social entrepreneurship. Here is where we return to the idea of comfort, for a
second meaning that Moretti (2013) draws out is comfort as strengthening and
encouraging—it is where mere utility meets with pleasure—comfort “ministers to enjoyment
and content(ment)” in an old definition Moretti pulls out of the digital archive. This is precisely
the performative intent of the evangelical-side hustle, it seems to me; this is not joyless
preaching of salvation and damnation, but the modelling of a balanced life within which
religion regulates desire.
A good example came from evangelicals with side-hustles as surfing instructors, as this was
all about balancing pleasure with career, with a reimagined sense of nature as pleasure-giving
and revelatory creation. Lifestyle evangelism of this kind is also a key concern in evangelical
side-hustles as it is a performance of otherness. Described in many of the churches I was
researching as an effective tool in proselyting. In a hyper-diverse city like Cape Town,
interpersonal communication often fractures along ethnic and class lines, making embodied
expressions of belief a key performative trope.
The middle class side-hustle therefore performatively repudiates the two forms of capitalist
irrationality that Weber (1992) identifies in the Protestant Ethic.
Firstly, the irrationality of the capitalist “adventurer” who pursues a rational goal through
irrational means—“laugh[ing] at all ethical limitations” and acting speculatively; the sorts of
figures often attracted to colonial Africa, in historical studies of capitalism. In contemporary
Africa, this is the hustler, mentioned above, “capitalizing on every opportunity” as Jairo
Muinve (2010) puts it. It is also reminiscent of the young men obsessed with the occult
economy of algorithmic currency speculation.
Secondly, Weber (1992) notes the irrationality of a pure capitalist asceticism in which means
are rational but the ends are wholly irrational because it is work for the sake of work; a life
“in the world” Weber writes, but “neither of nor for the world.” This is the common critique
of so many salaried professionals; the vocation as commitment to task and office may have
demonstrated success—as in Weber’s thesis, in a religious sense—but the late capitalist
measure of success is self-expression, not self-denial. As RW Johnson (2010) argues, the white
middle class has had to relearn the Protestant ethic—contrary as that may be to Weber’s
emphasis on the unintended and unconscious aspects of the notion—so expressive side-
hustles can also be of greay significance to white middle-class Christians who are unable to
locate spiritual or personal meaning in their conventional career. We are therefore also seeing
a move here away from any sense of Calvinistic Christianity, even among nominally Reformed
Christians, of whom there are still a great many in South Africa, and witnessing an almost
civilizational turn towards something more individually expressive, the religious logic of which
is charismatic evangelicalism or holistic spirituality. So on the one hand, while a kind of
worldly asceticism frees the Protestant entrepreneur “from the power of irrational impulses”,
as Weber (1992) puts it, and it frees the Christian side-hustler from the fantasies that circulate
in South African life, there is something of the “spiritualization of the personality” that Weber
identifies in Protestantism, though admitting that it only emerges in later generations than
the ones he is concerned with.
The evangelical “side-hustle” culture I was encountering comes close to the pre-bureaucratic
professional life that Weber looks quite fondly back at, where one’s office job was a secondary
concern for the “cultivated man” who was focused on self-development. This is one way of
rethinking work via the side-hustle, but we seem to be in a stage of heroic struggle of a
metaphorically polytheistic world, in Weber’s analysis of religion in modernity—between
public and private needs and desires.
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