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Dr Catherine Musuva

Home country: Kenya

Year of enrolment: 2012

Graduation date: December 2015

Department: Political Science

Supervisor: Dr Nicola de Jager

Dissertation title: International migration, xenophobia and the South African state


​Abstract: This dissertation seeks to advance the political understanding of xenophobia in South Africa by examining the relationship between the South African state and its African migrant population. It investigates the practices of frontline officials of three state institutions when dealing with African migrants and relates such practices to the prevalence of xenophobia. These institutions are the Department of Home Affairs, the South African Police Service and the City of Cape Town. The state of exception, propounded by Giorgio Agamben, provides a conceptual lens through which to examine the practices of state officials towards African migrants and the place of migrants in South African society. This concept is concerned with the law and the conditions of its application or suspension. It is characterised by the relationship between sovereign power and ‘bare life’– the form of deprived subjectivity produced by and captured in the exercise of sovereign power. The research is guided by a central question: Do the practices of state officials (from the three institutions), as experienced by African migrants, reinforce xenophobia in South Africa? This question is addressed by way of four secondary questions: a) How are the practices of state officials experienced by migrants?; b) To what extent are migrants treated differently by state officials in terms of their legal status or nationality?; c) Is the approach of state officials towards migrants evidence of a state of exception?; and, d) If so, to what extent has a state of exception in dealing with migrants shaped xenophobia in South Africa? In order to answer the research questions, an ethnographic field study was undertaken in Cape Town. The data-collection instruments were semi-structured interviews and observation at selected Home Affairs offices. A total of 40 African migrants, seven key informants from organisations that work on migration issues and two state officials were interviewed. The migrant sample represented 13 African countries and comprised five legal migrant categories. The key findings are that, firstly, migrants’ experiences with state officials were predominantly negative. Secondly, the primary basis for differential treatment of migrants was their foreignness, regardless of their nationality. With regard to the police and municipal officials, migrants’ experiences were further differentiated by other variables such as residential area, socio-economic status, and knowledge of the law or access to human rights organisations. There were also apparent differences in how migrants experienced Home Affairs officials based on their legal status with asylum seekers and refugees experiencing worse treatment than temporary and permanent residents. Thirdly, evidence of the state of exception varied within the three institutions. The main agents of the state of exception were mainly Home Affairs officials followed by the police. In the case of Home Affairs officials, the targets were predominantly illegal foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees, and in the case of the police migrants who are informal traders were targeted. The most evident site for the practice of the exception was the Refugee Reception Office. Fourthly, both the state of exception and xenophobia have an exclusionary power, which makes them mutually reinforcing.

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