Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Migration and the Lived Spaces of Southern Africa

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Migration and the Lived Spaces of Southern Africa

Article excerpt

When the Mail & Guardian reported on July 7, 1997, that two Mozambicans, a mother and child, had been devoured by lions in the Kruger National Park while their group tried to enter South Africa illegally, the story seemed to be little more than the perfunctory account of two lives lost in a part of the world that had seen more than its fair share of death. Park officials explained that about three hundred Mozambican "refugees" try to enter South Africa via the park every month and that some will die in the process. What else was there to say?

It probably did not occur to the officials, the reporters, nor most of the readers that this incident also represented an aspect of the international relations of the region. Yet in a few short paragraphs, the story captured an important segment of the struggles and contradictions that constitute southern Africa--a glimpse at the subjective reality of migration in that region today. I hope to show in this article that such lived experiences, rather than being the residue left over after the machinations of "grand politics" have played themselves out, are a crucial component of international relations and that our theoretical understanding of the field will remain incomplete unless the experiences of everyday life are incorporated.

In general, the analysis of international relations has eschewed the experiences of everyday life. A quick glance at the average IR textbook confirms that the field still exists in a rarefied realm occupied by statesmen (and sometimes stateswomen) and diplomats, the leaders of corporations, the media, and maybe even the leaders of transnational NGOs. The average person, however, be they worker, peasant or migrant, is not present in this space. No wonder, then, that the theories that emerge from this field tend to reaffirm this absence, thus masking the fact that international relations are, in the end, constituted in the very spaces of everyday life.

I believe that the focus on the lived experience of international relations is crucial for a number of reasons. For one, IR theory has consistently ignored such experiences and it thus became a part of the mystification of global realities in which individuals encounter global politics as the sum of anonymously determined oppressive forces, rather than as the products of their daily practices in spaces articulated in complex social relations. Furthermore, an emphasis on lived experiences holds the potential to imbue IR theory with an emancipatory potential that it has historically failed to realize. It is in that the recognition of the contradictions between the lived experiences and the ideological claims in which they are embedded that a potential for emancipatory action exists and an IR theory that does not capture that dynamic fails to account for the lived reality it attempts to explain.

This article's emphasis on labor migration in southern Africa is particularly suited to bring out the importance of these lived spaces to IR theory. Building on Lefebvre's approach to social space, I highlight patterns of spatial practice that have developed over the past century and a half and juxtapose these to hegemonic representations of space. The lived spaces--that is, the spaces where these contradictions materialize--are thus key to understanding the historical transitions in the region. Migrant workers, far from being exclusively victims of colonial and apartheid policies, emerge as active participants in shaping the space we recognize as southern Africa today. Furthermore, their notions of space may well be a foundation for a southern Africa in which the legacy of apartheid is overcome not only in abstract legal terms but also in the concrete spaces of everyday life.

In the section that follows, I provide a short outline of Lefebvre's approach to everyday life and social space. Then three further sections analyzing the contradictions of social space that led to the historical trajectory of social space in the region. …

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