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White spaces, black spaces: Transport, bordering and subjectivity between Zimbabwe and South Africa


The new bridge across Limpopo river that links Zimbabwe and South Africa at the Beitbridge border post. The old bridge is now a footbridge. Picture by Macvivo at Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

It is 4 January 2019 and the Zimbabwe-South Africa border post in Beitbridge is crowded with people from across sub-Saharan Africa, some coming as far as Malawi, all travelling back to South Africa to resume work in the new year. South Africa’s economy is the second biggest in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and attracts a lot of migrant workers, from professionals through those labouring in the construction sector to those doing menial jobs in the tourism sector. As soon as the bus reaches the border, the driver tells the passengers that they should disembark, get their passports stamped and walk across the bridge to the South African side. This is uncharacteristic. Normally, people receive a stamp and return to the bus. However, due to the number of people travelling at this time, the border authorities take extra caution to ensure nothing ‘illegal’ – including border jumpers – is let through. This short essay, emerging out of part of my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, highlights the link between transport, transport infrastructures such as airports and roads, and the illegalisation of migrants (Bleiker 2012). Airports and aeroplanes make travellers more visible to the state and confer the status of legality, acceptability and desirability while smaller private vehicles offer possibilities of sneaking past the ground border and construct their passengers as suspects.

Fortress O.R. Tambo

Named after Oliver Reginald Tambo, the man who led the African National Congress in the liberation struggle against apartheid, the O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg is the busiest in South Africa and the continent. Like most airports, it is a border zone in that it is a screening point for what comes into the country and what goes out. Approaching the passport check desks, a traveller has to look into security cameras so that they are recorded. As a key national point, the amount of security around the airport is such that it is difficult for something or someone to stray into the country through it. In that borders simultaneously let in and let out, this also means that it is difficult for something or someone ‘undesirable’ to leave the country through the airport. People who travel on aeroplanes are therefore highly unlikely to be illegalised migrants. Illegalised migration is tied to the idea that there are some people who are free to migrate because they offer something to the receiving nation, and those who are not. This is the enduring dichotomy of ‘good’ or deserving and ‘bad’ or undeserving immigrants. Those with papers are the good and those without papers are the bad migrants. Airports are mostly spaces for good migrants. The ‘bogus’ and therefore ‘undeserving’ migrants are seen as straining the host nation’s resources without bringing any benefit to their host country (Sales 2002). Zygmunt Bauman (1996) divides migrants into tourists (the good) and vagabonds (the bad). Between South Africa and the rest of the continent, the transport that they use is also part of that infrastructure that constructs migrants as good or bad.

Porous Beitbridge border post

The migrants in road vehicles are most likely to be illegalised or to have a high percentage of irregular immigrants among them. The police on the N1 highway stop vehicles and demand to see passports with a stamp bearing a valid date. On 4 January 2019, the bus got to the border in the afternoon, having left Bulawayo in the morning. Usually the buses between Zimbabwe and Johannesburg travel during darkness when there are fewer roadblocks. At the gate of the bridge that leads to the South African side of the border post, Zimbabwean border officials are screening passports, looking for a valid stamp before they let the holder through. The queue moves briskly. There is a woman who has been cast aside from the queue. She is holding her passport and some South African currency notes. It is likely the passport is not hers and the border official picked that up. She engages in an intense negotiation with the female border official next to her. The border official listens in a way that indicates that she does not intend to yield to her request, as yet. Walking on the long bridge across the Limpopo River one can see groups of people in the bushes a few metres from the border. They want to breach the border by swimming across the river. Soldiers on the South African side can be seen patrolling. Most of the people who breach the border this way find their transport (small vehicles or 14-seater minibuses) operated by omalayitsha who pirate between Zimbabwe and South Africa, waiting for them on the other side of the border. 

A tale of two borders

Where O.R. Tambo airport is effective in allowing only the tourist class to enter South Africa, Beitbridge border post is porous and fails to prevent the ‘vagabonds’ from entering. This is tied to the mode of transport they are linked to. Aeroplanes confer the status of legality, acceptability and desirability. The borders all over the world are open for capital and closed to many people; the aeroplane is seen as carrying tourists and the investments tied to them. On the other hand, ground vehicles such as buses, minibuses and other smaller cars construct their passengers as ‘suspects’. Borders tied to ground vehicles perform the role of closing out people rather than facilitate their movement. Buses, 14-seater minibuses and smaller vehicles carry mostly ‘undeserving’ migrants who are perceived to be a burden on the country’s economy. Furthermore, modes of transport construct the subjectivity of migrants in two other ways. First, the transport one uses is also tied to the part of the city that the migrant lives in when they get to Johannesburg. The air travellers are most likely to live in medium density or affluent suburbs where police presence is smaller. Those who travel on the road are likely to live in the over-patrolled townships or the impoverished inner-city spaces where police officers demand papers. Second, the modes of transportation are linked to race. Airports are white spaces. Ground border posts are black spaces. 

Khanyile Mlotshwa

Khanyile Mlotshwa is a PhD Candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa. He researches on articulations of the media, migration, the city and the representations of black African subjectivity in post-apartheid South Africa. He has published parts of his work as journals articles and book chapters.

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