Johannesburg: The migrant city that is anti-migrants

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Gallery by Mfuneko Toyana

The Market Theatre’s main stage was the platform where six diverse minds gathered to discuss migration, a topic central to all of their individual work.

The last day and the last panel discussion of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival helped to make audience members and authors alike reflect on the movement of people in and out of cities and countries.

The poor accommodating the poor

Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s Migrant Helpdesk, used an interesting anecdote from a conversation he had had with a woman, illustrating a point made earlier about migration being a situation where the poor are accommodating the poor.

The woman talked about the hierarchy that existed when it came to where one slept in her house. As a young child one was in the main bedroom, the older one got you would move to the dining room and the kitchen to make space for the younger ones. Eventually one would land up in the outside room and from there move on to their own house with a spouse.

Unfortunately her marriage had not worked out so she had to move back to the outside room with her kids, but because there was an immigrant living in that room she had to go back to the kitchen. The story points to one explanation of the animosity that exists around migration in South Africa.


Chinua Achebe’s book ‘There was a Country’ was the theme around which the conversation around which migration had to bend itself.

The panel consisted of writers who had threaded together stories and books, all zooming in on migration and themes central to resettlement. The panel discussion was largely based on the different writers’ works and their experiences of bridging political and personal narratives in their storytelling.

A young writer making waves in the literary world, NoViolet Bulawayo, said emergent personal narratives are based on political events, and that it was not possible to separate the two in one’s writing.

While the works of the six on stage were central to the discussion, engagement with audience members opened up the dialogue and brought up issues that were left out in the initial conversation.

Photographer and self-proclaimed book lover, Victor Dlamini (@victordlamini) made a poignant point from the floor, which steered the conversation to a meaningful point. He commented on people who are migrants themselves taking issue with people who migrate. He used Johannesburg as an example, saying most people who are in this city are not even from this city. “Johannesburg is a migrant city,” he added.

Panelist and writer, Achmat Dangor responded by saying that he agreed with Dlamini and pinned negative attitudes around migration on mechanisms of ‘othering’. He added that people migrate to places with a gravitational pull because of new ideas in that specific place. This is always the case with ‘big cities’, the activity and promise of economic emancipation lure people in, be it across borders or provincial lines.

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, author of The Bookseller of Kibera, added to Dangor’s response, saying that human beings had a tendency of finding one another’s differences and using them to oppress one another.

Another audience member asked why was it that only Africans were considered immigrants. He did not understand why the Chinese and Europeans who come to this country were not treated with the same hostility that “our brothers” were.

In response Kwanele Sosibo (@KwaneleSosibo), journalist at the Mail & Guardian, simply said “we do it to ourselves”. He went on to narrate an anecdote about how people in an Eastern Cape community believe in measuring people according to certain pedigrees. Mining house recruiters divided them up according to body size, using pedigree determine who’d make best workers, exemplary of systematic ‘othering’.

Writing Invisibility

The Writing Invisibility e-book was launched. Some of the writers on the panel were contributors in the book which was a project done in collaboration with the Wits African Centre for Migration & Society.

The book is available for free download here.



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