The most anticipated time of the year for many South African families is December. This is not because of the festive cheer, but because they are stokvel members, and with that comes some temporary financial relief this month.My mother has been a member of a stokvel for many years and this year I also “inherited” the tradition and decided to be part of a stokvel group.After trying to get into the habit of saving on my own, I failed dismally because I would frequently dip into my savings more often that I should.After joining a stokvel, I found it was a way for me, as an undisciplined spender, to save money by forcing me to be accountable to a larger collective.A stokvel is a savings group to which members regularly contribute an agreed amount. The group then decides on how that money is shared, whether it is a monthly pay-out or invested and shared at the end of the year.According to the Mail & Guardian, overwhelmingly, 60% of stokvels are used for investments, just over 20% for grocery and burial societies, and 18% for savings.When I was trying to save on my own for a while I found I was not disciplined enough to continue. However, when I shared my goal of saving with people I had committed to, I was more disciplined and determined to achieve this.I find that for women, stokvels have become more than just saving money for groceries, the festive season, or to get through January.Stokvels also contribute to women empowerment. They play a role in promoting savings as being instrumental in the empowerment of women. Women in stokvels do not have to depend on their spouse for contributions. Their participation in stokvels empowers them to the extent that they break away from a culture of dependence on men.Stokvels are also not only about women gathering for the purpose of saving money. Members of stokvels are there for each other and are supportive of one another when faced with hardships such as the death of a loved one. Stokvels establish social networks and friendships, which provide a forum for discussing personal lives and other issues; members learn from each other’s experiences. Friendships are established and strengthened from these conversations that take place at stokvel meetings. It is therefore through this networking that women especially establish other innovative ideas to improve the quality of their lives.Why join a stokvel?As a single mother of three children, Tholakele Mchunu, who worked at a cosmetics store, battled to make ends meet. She wondered how she would manage if a family member died, as funerals were very expensive. In 2014, she voiced her concerns to a group of friends, all of them mothers. They decided to form their own burial society to allay their fears.Members of Okuhle Stokvel group in Khayelitsha in Cape Town received big cooking pots and kettles to use at big events in the Eastern Cape. (Luleka Mbadamane)Their 15-member stokvel is called “Siyazenzele” which loosely translated means “we are doing it for ourselves”. Each person contributes R300 a month, R100 for the undertaker, R100 to be kept at a bank and the other R100 paid to the person whose turn it was to host their monthly meetings.For Mchunu, the burial stokvel was a godsend. She was unemployed when her mother died in 2016, and the burial money covered the expenses of her mother’s funeral. Two years ago, she also joined a groceries stokvel. No matter how difficult times get, Mchunu makes sure she contributes her portion each month.“You pay even if you can’t afford it because at the end of the day you want your family to be happy. It teaches you responsibility,” she said.The groceries stokvel has come in handy. Members pay in R300 a month and in December, money saved is withdrawn from the bank to buy groceries in bulk at a wholesaler. The groceries are then divided among the members.Mchunu said her share lasts her about three to four months. This has helped her financially because, in January, she’s able to use her money to buy school uniforms and other essentials. It’s like a social clubLocal teacher Jabulile Zondi (46) belongs to two stokvels — savings and groceries. These group contributions have made a huge difference in her life. Nine years ago, Zondi and nine fellow teachers from Elandskop got together after work to discuss starting a groceries stokvel, which would help them in January when everyone was broke.“It was difficult to buy groceries as well as the stuff kids need for school,” said Zondi. “But with the stokvel providing the groceries, I can now pay school fees and buy books. I have two kids in high school and I’m able to pay for everything. Everyone has benefited.” Each month, members pay R220 into the groceries stokvel and R100 into a savings account. There are an additional 18 members in the groceries group, while 20 men and women are in the savings stokvel.In December, members buy groceries in bulk at wholesalers, spending R50 000. They then share out the foodstuffs such as sugar, cake flour, rice, cooking oil, washing powder, bath soap, tinned fish, baked beans and chicken as well as groceries such as toothpaste and body lotion. The groceries last for several months. “From February I start paying into the stokvel again, and then from June I start buying groceries from my own pocket,” Zondi said.Members of the stokvels meet monthly with their chairperson and two secretaries, and minutes of the meetings are kept. “This is also time to catch up with one another and talk about our lives and our kids. It’s like a social club,” said Zondi.While stokvels were seen more as women’s social clubs, Sibusiso Mahlambi said he had also joined a stokvel group this year.“It will assist with groceries because where I work we don’t receive a 13th cheque. We receive our annual bonuses mid-year but it’s not always guaranteed.”Mahlambi said that he often found that his salary could not cover additional December costs, saying: “Grocery stokvels are like stock piling. In the tough economic times, you are prompted to buy food in bulk when it is on special. I will not go to a grocery store for the next three months because the grocery items will last a while. “If like me you’re not disciplined enough to save on your own, then it’s better to save in a group but just make sure that it’s with people you trust.”Investing more than just moneyOne may think that bank accounts, unit trusts, and other investment vehicles would have buried stokvels, but Andile Mazwai, chief executive officer of the National Stokvels Association of South Africa (Nassa), said the majority of South Africans still use stokvels. Mazwai said stokvels were growing, primarily because they were a “social thing”. “Even amongst young people in urban areas, stokvels are growing. The youth are taken with it. Social media is very important for young people but at some point they also like to get together. Stokvels help young people to get together with people they want to associate with,” Mazwai said. Mazwai said they have defined seven types of stokvels, which range from a party stokvel all the way through to investment stokvels, where people put aside a fixed amount of money to invest wisely.“The idea remains the same, people who know each other, who trust each other, who want to be with each other, get together and put money aside. It’s really about the behaviours of savings rather than the quantum of money people are saving.” Mazwai advised the public to only join stokvels with people they trusted: “If it seems too good to be true, guess what? It probably is. If people offer to double your money, it doesn’t work that way. Start with people you trust and people who you can find if anything does go wrong,” he warned.He said while some stokvels were for investment purposes, most only save to consume. “It’s a good vehicle for investing because many South Africans don’t have formal jobs. An informal trader doesn’t have contractual savings. Stokvels allow such people to get together with their friends to put down a certain amount of money to invest in a unit trust.Mazwai said the biggest challenge with stokvels was the trust factor: “The number one challenge is always about trusting each other and the financial system. The challenge members have is to keep the money safe, protect it from each other and from bank fees to make sure they’ll have it when they want to use it.”Stokvels — A soft target for criminalsAccording to incidents reported to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) between 2015 and January 2018, 52 stokvel robbery incidents were reported.Kalyani Pillay, the CEO of Sabric, said: “It is very distressing that bank clients, who are the victims of stokvel and associated robberies, are often injured or even killed during these incidents, which is why we urge them to find safer ways to transact, such as Internet transfers or mobile banking, instead of carrying large amounts of cash.”This week, Lieutenant Colonel Thulani Zwane warned the public not to carry large sums of cash during this festive season period, saying: “We are concerned after recent incidents where people are robbed of their cash or even injured in the process.”Zwane warned all stokvel members to take extra precautions when dealing with large amounts of cash. “Stokvels are advised to arrange with their banks to deposit cash into their accounts. “Citizens are cautioned not to withdraw large amounts of cash or transport large sums for deposits as often criminals have been tipped off and follow people to and from banks with the intention to rob them.”Last month, three men were shot and killed in Clermont while driving to one of their homes to share out their R28 000 in stokvel money. The suspects allegedly took the cash that had been withdrawn by the victims and fled. No arrests were made.Last year, The Witness reported that an Estcourt stokvel group was robbed of more than R100 000 by three armed men who were later arrested on the N3 highway on Town Hill.Tips for stokvel groupings from SabricDon’t make cash deposits of club members’ contributions on high-risk days (for example on a Monday after month-end).Ensure those depositing club cash contributions or making withdrawals are accompanied by another club member.A stokvel savings club or burial society can arrange for members to deposit cash directly into the club’s account instead of collecting cash contributions.Arrange for the club’s payout to be electronically transferred into each club member’s personal account or accounts of their choice.