The tactical cosmopolitanism of migrants

How do foreign migrants in South Africa's urban estuaries deal with the hostility they regularly encounter? The answer lies in 'tactical cosmopolitanism', say Loren Landau and Iriann Freemantle
Iriann Freemantle Loren Landau
23 November 2011

When apartheid ended in 1994, prohibitions were lifted and South Africa’s previously ‘forbidden cities’ were opened to all citizens regardless of race. As black South Africans moved in, so too did an ever more diverse group of international migrants who had long been repelled by border controls or limited to life in rural mining and agricultural zones. The meeting of these streams in the country’s underserviced and fluid urban estuaries has helped generate pervasive popular angst over the threat ‘illegal’ African immigrants pose to the country’s security and resources. Foreign migrants constitute less than 4 per cent of the country’s population, but xenophobia is widespread. In a country ostensibly committed to tolerance, discrimination manifests itself in everything from street-level abuse, to discrimination against migrants by civil servants and outright violence. During two weeks in May 2008, more than 60 people were killed - two-thirds of them foreign nationals - and over a hundred thousand displaced when neighbours turned against each other in a gory xenophobic melee.

As rough as South African cities may be, their wealth and opportunities continue to beckon. As one Zimbabwean woman stated shortly after the 2008 attacks, South Africa might be the ‘frying pan’, but Zimbabwe is ‘the real fire’. With few options at home, people seek ways to navigate exclusion and exploitation by establishing a foundation, however wobbly, for interacting with and appeasing their neighbours. One of these efforts includes the creation of a distinctly cosmopolitan (albeit not always coherent) set of tactics aimed at legitimising their presence. Exhibiting a permanent ‘in-betweenness’ typical of cosmopolitanism, migrants shift between different networks, identities and places without ever fully committing to or becoming part of any of them, floating above and often looking down on South African society. This is a tactical, not a philosophical or ethical response. It makes no overt political statement or moral claim other than that as cosmopolitans, migrants should not be bound by the restrictions and hostility with which they are so regularly confronted..

This cosmopolitanism is not documented in a tract or treatise, but can be seen in the subtexts and personal stories of the thousands of people we and our colleagues have spoken with in Johannesburg. From these discussions, we have been able to identify four features central to tactical cosmopolitanism:

First, migrants maintain strong multi-sited connections that allow them to hover above the spaces in which they live, dipping in to extract what they need while maintaining social and economic relations elsewhere. A Senegalese migrant explains how his siblings have spread out all over Europe, enabling his mother to easily access, sojourn and sell her crafts ‘everywhere she has a son’. Whether managed through technology, religion, or other means, migrants practise a kind of ‘de facto cosmopolitanism’ that spans national borders and, in some cases, almost transcends territory altogether.

Second, migrants develop a counter-idiom of self-exclusion and superiority that distances them from unwelcoming locals. A migrant from Lesotho reveals many dimensions of this discourse of non-belonging: ‘I don’t think any right-thinking person would want to be South African. It’s a very unhealthy environment. South Africans are very aggressive, even the way they talk.’ Like her, many deny ever having held aspirations of permanent settlement. Others claim that they would refuse such opportunities were they available. With no apparent desire to root themselves in any particular locality, migrants capitalise on their ‘in-betweenness’ and deny ‘locals’ the right to set the terms of their engagements.

Third, migrants draw on a varied mix of Pan-Africanism and other liberation philosophies in order to legitimise their presence in South Africa. The head of a Pan-African association in inner- city Johannesburg for example explains: ‘We want to shift our patriotism to the continent, not to a country. We Africans share a history together; we are bound together by neo-colonialism…this is the link that we have got now…in our day-to-day living we are all confronted with problems of nationality, ethnicity and so on. But when you have this [broader African] perspective, you do not see these problems any more.’ Importantly, there is more to this than a desire to build a community of all Africans as an end in itself. Rather, this type of rhetoric is particularly designed to erode the barriers that separate foreigners from South Africans. What we see in people like the Pan-Africanist quoted above is a willingness to engage a plurality of cultures and an openness to hybridity and multiple identities. This is not, however, openness without boundaries, but rather one that draws on multiple identities simultaneously without ever accepting the overarching authority or power of one.

Fourth, tactical cosmopolitanism manifests in the constantly shifting organisational forms evident amongst Johannesburg’s migrants. In many instances in our research, even people from the same country carefully avoided close association with other ‘exiles’, or clung to multiple points of loyalty that allowed them to shift within multiple networks. The migrants’ associations we encountered are not founded on preserving identity, but instead use combinations of national, ethnic and political affiliations for tactical purposes, and to avoid becoming involved in an ethics of obligation or local entanglement. Their politics are not about claiming rights or power in Johannesburg, but about using the city and moving on. As such, these tactics do not constitute an alternative way of belonging, but draw on cosmopolitan rhetoric and organisational forms that allow migrants to live outside of ‘belonging’ while claiming the benefits of it.

Cosmopolitan tactics include the creation of de-territorialised social and economic networks; the development of an idiom of self-exclusion that provides migrants with a sense of moral superiority vis-à-vis their antagonistic hosts; the establishment of transitory links to a range of different communities and groups and the constantly shifting nature of organisation and association. This is but one type of community of convenience taking shape, not just in South Africa, but in Africa’s many urban estuaries. Like others, it is shaped by the particular conditions under which it is formed. Amidst the constant movement and heterogeneity of third world cities, it comes as little surprise that it is a motley and sometimes even contradictory collection of actions undertaken by groups that are often fragmented by language, religion, legal status and mutual enmity. These values and practices don’t represent a coherent counter-hegemonic or ‘strategic’ movement. Nevertheless they constitute a powerful force. While they do little to bind migrants to each other, cosmopolitan tactics help to cement differences between stationary hosts and a mobile other. It is too early to tell what the consequences of this will be for South Africa or other countries. If, as some argue, Johannesburg like cities everywhere is a site of imagination, then perhaps we are witnessing a novel form of existence: a kind of subterranean ethics that challenges how we have understood integration and value.

To read a longer version of this article published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies click here.


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