Review: Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an in-between city

Author(s) Caroline Wanjiku Kihato
Publisher Wits University Press
Year 2013

This is a fascinating, exciting and unusual ethnographic account of life in Johannesburg for migrant women.  It is unusual because Caroline Wanjiku Kihato combines rich empirical evidence and grounded theoretical analyses to critique policy interventions. In many respects the author has taken on the challenge of multi-level analysis that many social scientists purport to do yet rarely achieve. Migrant Women of Johannesburg privileges the micro level perspective of these women’s everyday lives yet contextualises them within their negotiation of Johannesburg’s material and symbolic structures of state power. If I was to have one criticism it is that the links to public policy sometimes skew the analysis and reduce the complexity the author presents into narrow channels. This is a powerful account that is true to the saying ‘the personal is political’, from the author’s presence in the book as she weaves her own experiences as a social scientist, migrant woman and activist, to the courage and pragmatic agency that embeds these migrant women’s negotiation of life in this liminal urban space.

In academic texts often introductions are the part that readers skim over in their rush to get to the heart of the book. In Migrant Women of Johannesburg Kihato uses the introduction to effectively draw you into the material, hook you and keep you there. Every page feels vital and is rich in historical context, announces the author’s epistemological standpoint and confidently makes the case for why the intersection of key concepts such as gender, migration, development and urban governance can best be traced and effectively analysed through favouring the participants’ gaze and ‘voice’. We are presented with a clear rendering of a methodological approach that is integral to the theoretical context the author draws on. This is refreshing because too often in ethnographic accounts methodology is glossed over and one is left wondering about the process of fieldwork. Kihato’s transparency opens the door for critical evaluation and reflection on different approaches, insider-outsider dilemmas, giving ‘voice’ whilst maintaining anonymity, and the safety of participants.

‘The Notice: Rethinking Urban Governance in the Age of Mobility’ is a strong chapter that underscores the author’s methodological and theoretical approach to her work. Issues of urban governance as performance by subjects and state actors are foregrounded within the potentially terrifying consequences of law and order in Johannesburg. Urban realities and skewed power and social dynamics inform the agency of migrant women. The author introduces the notion of legibility and illegibility of space, state and practice. State power as written through modes of urban governance is both erased and re-inscribed through processes of negotiation and the lived realities of these women, their encounters with the state’s agents and institutions. The author favours the agency of migrant women in these complex negotiations, yet one is left wondering about the limits of their agency; limits informed by the repressive legacy of state power in South Africa and the insecurity that informs women’s lives.

The biblical reference in the heading of the chapter ‘Between Pharaoh’s Army and the Red Sea: Social Mobility and Social Death in the Context of Women’s Migration’ sets the tone for how social mobility in the context of migration is a struggle between life and death offering impossible choices between two harsh fates. Socio-economic opportunities, the quest for asylum, improved livelihoods, and any number of explanations underscore classic migration push-pull theories of migrants’ desire to either seek ‘a better life’, ‘safety’ or the ability to help those ‘left behind’. The migrant-centred perspective that Kihato adopts enables us to understand the complexity of her participants’ lives. Critiques of ‘push-pull’ theories tend to offer alternative theories and even more models that still fail to capture the messiness of everyday lives in urban contexts where migrants’ lives remain viscerally connected to countries of origin. By twinning social mobility to social death we see the contradictions inherent in these migrants’ lives, and how they understand and challenge what is meant by success and social recognition in the different spaces and places their lives straddle.

Violence in the private sphere is a difficult subject that many books on African cities totally omit. This absence of the private from the public sphere compartmentalises life behind closed doors as having little to do with life in the city. It is this divide and omission that Kihato seeks to challenge in a chapter that deals with the sensitive subject of domestic violence: ‘Turning the Home Inside-Out: Private Spaces and Everyday Politics.’ Kihato’s insistence on the intimate space of ‘home’ as irrevocably intertwined within the public urban space invites us to query the extent to which discourses as well as experiences of violence, leach and permeate into violence against women at the hands of men. The chapter also reveals that homeland remains a continued presence in the form of socio-cultural obligations and/or fear for those women who fled to Johannesburg in search of safety. The state and community are important structures that women have to negotiate but they do not necessarily offer protection. In this analysis urban governance intersects with social governance. The complicity of the state and community, for different motivations, continues to blight the lives of those women who suffer from personal and social, economic and legislative violence in Johannesburg.

One of the dilemmas of refugee studies as an academic discipline and for those who provide services, campaigns or interventions on behalf of refugees, is the extent to which any critical analyses of refugees as a category can erode vital protections. Yet as social scientists seeking to understand the lives of our participants it is important to be true to their realities, which sometimes span multiple categories and experiences. It is precisely this complexity that Kihato confront in the chapter ‘The Station, Camp and Refugee: Xenophobic Violence and the City’ as she reveals how women themselves negotiate at times simultaneous categories as migrants and/or refugees. This chapter captures the slippages, points of opportunity and struggle for improved rights and protection sparked by a period of extreme xenophobic violence. Through the lives of these women Kihato’s analysis reveals the insecurity that underscores migrants’ lives and maybe is a little too positive about their ability to mobilise tactical agency. In fact, her analysis reveals that however frustrating the blunt instrument that the UN Convention is, it remains a fragile safety net against reactive, inconsistent and repressive state responses to xenophobic violence. Hence the dilemma of more nuanced analyses that reveal participants’ agency or protect the category ‘refugee’, despite its inability to capture the complex realities of participants’ lives.

In the final chapter, ‘Ways of Seeing – Migrant Women in the Liminal City’, Kihato gives an in-depth exposition of her methodological approach and why she feels it underpins the originality and depth of her analyses. This is a strong piece that would work as a standalone article, and here foregrounds the debate on fragility, truth, indeed ‘ways of seeing’ and the extent to which the liminal city engenders liminal lives. Moral economies as enacted, tactical and plural suffuse Kihato’s discussion on urban governance and everyday life in the city for these women migrants. The extent to which power and authority is held in balance through the actions of the marginalised and the performativity of the state’s agents and institutions remains posed. There is a need to deepen our understanding, question the exceptionalism attached to migrants over other marginalised groups, and the role of economic social position. These are complex interpretations to conclude on but are testament to the sustained vibrant and thought-provoking nature of this book. This is an exceptional book where the migrant women retain centre stage, yet through the specificity of their lives, which are often discounted and rendered invisible, larger questions are posed that impact all levels of life in contemporary Africa.



Naluwembe Binaisa is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity investigating the nexus between super-diversity, urbanization and mobile communication technologies in Lagos, Nigeria. The research focuses on super-diversity through the intersectionalities of capital, mobility, ethnicity, gender, evolving spatial and population densities. Prior to joining Max Planck Naluwembe was based at the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford where she worked on two projects: Mobility in the African Great Lakes Project and African Diasporas within Africa. Email: [email protected]

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