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Displacement, Estrangement and Sovereignty: Reconfiguring State Power in Urban South Africa

  • Loren B. Landau and Tamlyn Monson


Academic writing often portrays migrants as either passive victims of violence and aid recipients or as courageous heroes facing horrific indifference and hazards. This article recodes them and their activities as potent forces for reshaping practices of state power. In this depiction, displacement also becomes a lens for re-evaluating the nature of sovereignty in urban Africa. Through its focus on Johannesburg this article explores how migrant communities intentionally and inadvertently evade, erode and exploit state policies, practices and shortcomings. Rather than being bound by their ambiguous status, they exploit their exclusion to exercise forms of autonomy and freedom in their engagement with the state and its street-level manifestations. Through these interactions, displacement and the continued mobility of urban residents is generating new forms of non-state-centric urban sovereignties and new patterns of transnational governance shaped, but not controlled, by state institutions. To recognize these evolving configurations we must look beyond Manichaean perspectives to see the full nature and degree of territorial control.



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1 See C. Dauvergne, ‘Challenges to Sovereignty: Migration Laws for the 21st Century’, paper presented at the 13th Commonwealth Law Conference in Melbourne, Australia, April 2003; H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd edn, New York, Meridian Books, 1958.

2 See Krasner, S., ‘Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States’, International Security, 29: 2 (2004), pp. 85120; R. Keohane, ‘Political Authority after Intervention: Gradations in Sovereignty’, in J. L. Holzgrefe and Robert O. Keohane (eds), Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 275–98; B. Chalfin, Working the Border in Ghana: Technologies of Sovereignty and its Others, Occasional Paper 16, Princeton, Institute for Advanced Study, 2003; C. Joppke, ‘Immigration Challenges the Nation-State’, in C. Joppke (ed.), Challenge to the Nation State, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 5–48; G. P. Freeman, ‘The Decline of Sovereignty? Politics and Immigration Restriction in Liberal States’, in Joppke, Challenge to the Nation State, pp. 86–109.

3 A. Simone, For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2004.

4 Mbembe, A. and Nuttall, S., ‘Writing the World from an African Metropolis’, Public Culture, 16: 3 (2004), pp. 347–72;

5 M. Balbo and G. Marconi, Governing International Migration in the City of the South, Global Migration Perspectives 38, Geneva, Global Commission for International Migration, 2005, p. 3.

6 T. Leggett, Rainbow Tenement: Crime and Policing in Inner Johannesburg, Monograph 78, Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies, 2003.

7 Because South Africa grants all legally registered foreigners, including refugees, the right to move within the country, it is almost impossible to monitor their movements and distribution accurately.

8 Cf. M. Castells, The Power of Identity, London, Blackwell, 2004.

9 Simone, For the City Yet to Come, p. 4; also Mbembe, A., ‘Aesthetics of Superfluity’, Public Culture, 16: 3 (2004), pp. 373405.

10 Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 78.

11 Arnade, P., Howell, M. C. and Simons, W., ‘Fertile Spaces: The Productivity of Urban Space in Northern Europe’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 32 (2002), pp. 515–48.

12 M. Foucault, ‘Governmentality’, in G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 87–104; M. Dean, ‘Foucault, Government, and the Enfolding of Authority’, in A. Barry, T. Osborne and N. Rose (eds), Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism, and Rationalities of Government, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 209–29.

13 B. Harris, A Foreign Experience: Violence, Crime and Xenophobia During South Africa's Transition, Violence and Transition Series 5, South Africa, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2001.

14 T Mohlala, ‘Xenophobic Thugs Roam Zandspruit’, Mail and Guardian, 4 October 2000.

15 T Mokopanele, ‘Tensions Running High in Zandspruit’, Business Day, 25 October 2000.

16 Robert Matshete, interview for CDE, 22 February 2007.

17 ‘South African Riots Sparked by Influx of Migrants’, Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2006.

18 Two Zambian former residents of Choba, interview for CDE, 23 February 2007. Confirmed in accounts by South African residents of Choba and Robert Matshete, 22 February 2007.

19 B, a young man running spaza shop at Choba taxi rank, interview for CDE, 27 February 2007.

20 SABC News, ‘Police Presence Intensified in Olievenhoutbosch’, 5 January 2006, available at,2172,118944,00.html.

21 The account of violence in the Eastern Cape draws heavily from L. B. Landau and H. Haithar, ‘Somalis are Easy Prey’, Mail and Guardian, 2 March 2007.

22 J. Crush and V. Williams, Criminal Tendencies: Immigrants and Illegality in South Africa, Migration Policy Brief 10, Cape Town, Southern Africa Migration Project, 2003; Leggett, Rainbow Tenement.

23 Peberdy, S. and Majodina, Z., ‘Just a Roof Over My Head? Housing and the Somali Refugee Community in Johannesburg’, Urban Forum, 11: 2 (2007), pp. 273–88; Consortium of Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), Protecting Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa 2007, Pretoria, Consortium of Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, 2007.

24 Section 27 (1) and Section 27 (3) of the South African Constitution.

25 F. Belvedere, National Refugee Baseline Survey: Final Report, Johannesburg, Community Agency for Social Enquiry; Japan International Cooperation and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2003.

26 See C. Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980; C. Gordon, ‘Governmental Rationality: An Introduction’, in Burchell et al., The Foucault Effect, pp. 1–52; also W. Powell, ‘Expanding the Scope of Institutional Analysis’, in W. W. Powell and P. J. DiMaggio (eds), The New Institutionalism and Organizational Analysis, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 183–203.

27 See Mandaville, P. G., ‘Territory and Translocality: Discrepant Idioms of Political Identity’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 28: 3 (1999), pp. 653–73; Foucault, ‘Governmentality’.

28 See Bauman, Globalization.

29 C. Kihato, ‘Reconfiguring Citizenship in African Cities’ unpublished paper presented to the Inclusive Cities Workshop, Wits University, Johannesburg, 12 March 2007.

30 Cf. U. Hannerz, ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture’, in M. Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture: Nationalism Globalization and Modernity, London: Sage, 1990, pp. 237–51, 239.

31 J. M. Mang'ana, ‘The Effects of Migration on Human Rights Consciousness among Congolese Refugees in Johannesburg’, unpublished MA thesis, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 2004; J-P. Misago, ‘The Impact of Refugee–Host Community Interactions on Refugees’ National and Ethnic Identities: The Case of Burundian Refugees in Johannesburg', unpublished MA thesis, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 2005.

32 B. Amisi and R. Ballard, ‘In the Absence of Citizenship: Congolese Refugee Struggle and Organisation in South Africa’, Forced Migration Working Paper 16, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, April 2005, available at; G. Götz and A. Simone, ‘On Belonging and Becoming in African Cities’, in R. Tomlinson, Robert Beauregard, Lindsay Bremmer and Xolela Mangcu (eds), Emerging Johannesburg: Perspectives on the Postapartheid City, London, Routledge, 2003, pp. 123–47.

33 E. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 183; see also Simone, A., ‘On the Worlding of African Cities’, African Studies Review, 44: 2 (2001), pp. 1541.

34 G. Simmel, The Sociology of George Simmel, trans. Kurt Wolff, New York, Free Press, 1964.

35 J-F. Bayart, S. Ellis and B. Hibou, ‘From Kleptocracy to the Felonious State?’, in J-F. Bayart, S. Ellis and B. Hibou (eds), The Criminalization of the State in Africa: African Issues, Oxford, James Currey, 1999, pp. 1–31.

36 E. Algotsson, Lindela: At the Crossroads for Detention and Repatriation, Johannesburg, South African Human Rights Commission, 2000; Lubkemann, S., ‘The Transformation of Transnationality among Mozambican Migrants in South Africa’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 34: 1 (2000), pp. 4163, 58–9;

37 South African respondents were asked about being stopped by the police since coming to or while living in Johannesburg.

38 South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), ‘Open Hearings on Xenophobia and Problems Related to it’, 2000, available at

39 Ibid.; L. B. Landau, ‘Transplants and Transients: Nativism, Nationalism, and Migration in Inner-City Johannesburg’, Forced Migration Working Paper 19, unpublished, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand; P. Zvomunya, ‘From Terror to Misery’, Mail and Guardian, 25 August 2005.

40 In I. Palmary, J. Rauch and G. Simpson, ‘Violent Crime in Johannesburg’, in Tomlinson et al., Emerging Johannesburg, p. 113.

41 See K. Jacobsen and S. K. Bailey, ‘Micro-Credit and Banking for Refugees in Johannesburg’, in L. B. Landau (ed.), Forced Migrants in the New Johannesburg: Towards a Local Government Response, Johannesburg, Forced Migration Studies Programme, 2004, pp. 99–102.

42 A. Templeton and S. Maphumulo, ‘Immigrants Get Raw Deal’, Star, 20 June 2005.

43 L. B. Landau, K. Ramjathan-Keogh, G. Singh, ‘Xenophobia in South Africa and Problems Related to It’, Forced Migration Working Paper Series 13, unpublished, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 2005.

44 Ibid.

45 An Institute of Migration (IOM) official describes the situation as follows: ‘Since we opened [the Beitbridge reception centre] on 31 May last year [2006], we have been operating seven days a week – not one single day of closing – and only on one day was no-one deported [from South Africa]. Christmas Day people were deported; New Year's Eve they were deported; New Year's Day they were deported; any public holiday you like to mention, they were deported,’ IRIN News, ‘IOM to Open Centre for Undocumented Zim Migrants’, IRIN News, 4 September 2007.

46 CoRMSA, Protecting Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa 2007.

47 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 283–4.

48 B. L. Masetlha, ‘Remarks at the Presentation of the Department of Home Affairs on the Migration System in South Africa to the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee’, 15 April 2002, available at

49 Mountz, A., ‘Human Smuggling, the Transnational Imaginary, and Everyday Geographies of the Nation-State’, Antipode, 35: 3 (2003), pp. 622–44.

50 See Krasner, ‘Sharing Sovereignty’; C. Boone, Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003; Landau, L. B., ‘Beyond the Losers: Transforming Governmental Practice in Refugee-Affected Tanzania’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 16: 1 (2003), pp. 1943.

51 Landau, ‘Xenophobia in South Africa’; P. Sukhraj, ‘Foreigners Find No Soft Place to Fall’, Star, 16 September 2005.

52 Cf. P. Chabal and J-P. Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, Oxford, International African Institute in Association with James Currey, 1999; Bayart et al., The Criminalization of the State in Africa.

53 G. Agamben, State of Exception, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Displacement, Estrangement and Sovereignty: Reconfiguring State Power in Urban South Africa

  • Loren B. Landau and Tamlyn Monson


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