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Bordering on complexity? African migrants’ narratives of boundary creation and dissolution


South Africa has a history of violent xenophobic attitudes and behaviours. Unlike other African countries, South Africa’s maladaptive response to increased ethnic and national diversity within the population is highlighted because of its global visibility as the icon of a peaceful democratic transition. As Bronwyn Harris suggests, there are a number of socio-psychological reasons for the continuation of this xenophobic reality; additionally, we argue that othering occurs through the very act of categorisation and the further interaction between ‘self and other’ in the South African polity. Yet this is but one aspect of the collective narrative. 


The narratives we offer in the next few minutes, describing research moments across time and space, suggest that social and political boundaries are transcended and dissolved in longitudinal engagement; engagement between human beings, rather than citizen and migrant.

‘Tigi tigi’, sings Sash, as she snaps her index and middle fingers, sipping on her brutal fruit ruby apple spritzer from a 500ml can. I know Sash as a Masters candidate in African studies at the University of the Free State; a 25-year-old black African female and educational migrant born in Lesotho. 


Here in this context, Sash is a patron in a vibrant pub and grill, located on the corner of Mkhuhlane street, Bochabela. This is a very popular hang-out spot in a Bloemfontein township, where one is able to braai meat and relax with a drink. Sash and I dig into pork and lamb chops and some sausage. We lick our fingers tasting a sweet and salty marinade sauce. The smell of charcoal burning, and the sound of the marinated fat hissing on the coals adds to the experience. Sash takes out her phone, video-records our plate of food, and takes a selfie of herself and me. The moment is captured. Recorded. Archived.


The singing is interrupted abruptly as Sash realizes that there is an ongoing soccer match on the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. ‘Are you a Pirates fan?’, I ask. A few seconds later Sash says excitedly, ‘Yes!!’. The Buccaneers have just scored another goal. Two gentlemen sitting to our right also celebrate this goal with hand gestures and ululation, as does Sash. Their excitement is electric. 


Seated in Tracey’s kitchen, she narrates a violent attack that left her husband bedridden. She spent four months at a state hospital, visiting her husband daily. With her eyes lit up she recounts her experiences with unfriendly South African healthcare workers. Some called her ‘Tsvangirai’ – the former opposition leader in Zimbabwe. She has also been accused of taking advantage of free healthcare provision in South Africa.


I take a sip of orange juice, quiet. Sitting across me on a black chair, Tracey continues: ‘A year later, after my husband is discharged, I receive SMS messages from some doctors and nurses. They ask, “Are you coping?”, “Do you need any assistance?”, “How are the kids?”, “Do you have food?”, “If your husband shows any signs of COVID-19, let me know immediately”.’ By way of explanation she says, ‘I am now friends with the staff at the hospital and some of the doctors are white’. 


She relates all of this with a smile on her face. I am confused and ask her, ‘How are you able to tell this story with a smile?’. She responds, ‘My children have helped me through this. They said to me, Mama, you need to stop crying because it will not change the situation. I have now accepted the situation for what it is, and God gives me strength.’


Wednesday night bible study is always busy. The men who gather at Robert’s home are younger than 30. The food, depending on available funds, could be fufu and beans, cheese and onion snackwiches, or spaghetti in a tomato base. 


Robert, a white South African, is committed to helping young black men from the African continent. He believes that he is tending to their Souls. They might not attend Sunday morning services, but there’s the knock on the front door; every Wednesday in Muizenberg.


With bowed heads and whispers in various languages, prayers are offered on behalf of parents and other family left behind in the DRC, the Congo and Angola. Pinched, sometimes haunted, faces crack open in wide smiles. Robert puts an arm across the shoulders of another, who has just heard of the death of a cousin. Money is collected to assist with expenses. Near invisible connections are stitched together through sharing. Commensality. Coevalness. Camaraderie. Christianity. The stranger becomes familiar as we eat from the same pot.


The ethnographic slices noted here disturb the easy boundary between citizen and foreigner. The process of rebordering, as noted by Tracey when she feels excluded at the hospital, is subverted by South African doctors and nurses working in the same hospital as they extend compassion and care beyond the confines of the hospital space, virtually. 


Another South African, Robert, offers a space of comfort, nourishment and respite. Christianity anchors very different men in networks of care that support the well-being of all included. That my main research friends were able to support Robert in his hour of need a few years after my initial fieldwork confirms the strength of the bond created during that period. 


Then there’s Ingrid’s experience with Sash. Sash’s invitation to join her at one of her favourite places in Bloemfontein harasses the dichotomy between citizen and non-citizen; between researcher and researched. Music, food and soccer cement the relationship that has been created over time. 


All these interactions negate a singular xenophobic narrative of the South African polity. Maintaining a singular narrative of xenophobia would ignore the very real ways in which ‘the other’ and South Africans transcend the various labels in consistent, daily interactions. Focusing on these interactions and the ways in which metaphorical and embodied boundary-making is subverted physically, we argue that the Congolese, Lesotho and Zimbabwean nationals we have worked with, and continue to work with, give meaning to the African philosophy of ubuntu.


Drucilla Cornell and Karin van Marle, citing Mabogo P. More, state that ubuntu ‘is a point of view according to which moral practices are founded exclusively on consideration and enhancement of human well-being; a preoccupation with the “human”. It enjoins that what is morally good is that [which] brings dignity, respect, contentment, and prosperity to others, self and the community at large. Ubuntu is a demand for respect for persons no matter what their circumstances may be’.


Our ethnographic vignettes demonstrate that boundaries are porous and malleable, highlighting individual migrants’ agency and the ways in which their transcendence of boundaries speak to different futures where South Africans actively subvert socio-political boundaries, whether as research subjects or as anthropologists. 


Our research experiences show that while black African transmigrants entering South Africa are labelled differently by the government, the similarity of these transmigrants’ experiences as mobile transnational subjects underscore the futility of maintaining a system of categorisation that obscures lived realities and experiences. Their experiences, our experiences, antagonise the superficial suggestion of hard boundaries expressed materially through border posts, border patrols and other symbolic forms of citizenship. Ubuntu, as experienced here, softens the materially symbolic expressions of otherness.

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Professor Joy Owen

Associate Professor Joy Owen, an ‘academic’ mother of one, heads the Anthropology Department at the University of the Free State. Her PhD research paid attention to the transnational networks of Congolese transnationals resident in Cape Town, South Africa. Focusing on livelihoods, religious praxis and binational relationships, Joy demonstrated the intricate ways in which Congolese migrants organised and situated their lives locally. Other research interests include motherhood in academia, decoloniality, identity politics and critical pedagogy. Email:

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Ingrid Keamogetswe Juries

Ingrid Keamogetswe Juries is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of the Free State. With a Masters in Geography, Ingrid’s current PhD research on African educational migrants considers the oft-ignored transnational movement of African students. Her work details the complex ways in which educational migrants negotiate belonging in Higher Education and other social spaces in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Ingrid has over ten years of teaching experience in Anthropology, having taught courses at introductory and senior levels. Email:

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Mamokoena Dolly Mokoena

Mamokoena Dolly Mokoena is a Masters candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Free State. Her current Master’s research considers the experiences of Zimbabwean transnational migrants’ in healthcare facilities in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Her recent research demonstrates that these experiences (both positive and negative) are part of a broader sociality that spans local South African networks and Zimbabwean transnational networks. Email:

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