Poor Men With Money: On The Politics of Not Studying The Poorest Of The Poor In Urban South Africa
Poverty and violence crisscross ethnographies of the African city. This is especially pronounced in anthropological research from South Africa, where considerable efforts are made to describe and document poverty and violence across segregated cityscapes. Correlations between poverty and vulnerability are often asserted in the literature: the “poorest of the poor” are presented repeatedly as the persons most susceptible to violence and harm. In this paper I aim to complicate how poverty and vulnerability are conventionally linked. Drawing from fieldwork on young African migrants’ informal work in Cape Town, I show how hazardous slight gains in prosperity can prove. Once the migrants’ entrepreneurial ventures took off, the youths were recast quickly as persons of suspicion and acceptable targeting. I present an episode in counterpoint of other migrants losing their property and means of livelihood. Countering expectations, these migrants’ descent into poverty’s inconspicuousness protected them during an outbreak of anti-immigrant violence. The ethnography shows poverty and vulnerability to be closely connected facets of urban life but more dynamically than assumed and not associable in predictable ways. I argue that anthropology’s disproportionately narrow focus on the most economically and socially disadvantaged members of society risks eclipsing small yet significant fluctuations in wealth and well-being among the urban poor as a whole. Such a politics understates their diversity.
Anthropologists I met in Cape Town during the period of my fieldwork often told me that I was studying “the wrong kinds of [African] migrants” in their city. A well-meant remark if hard to decrypt at first, this was circuitous, in retrospect valuable guidance in the customs and subtleties of local anthropological inquiry. It speaks to the complex politics of studying the urban poor in South Africa specifically.
Studying “the wrong kinds of migrants” encompassed several sets of concerns. It first referred to how the scales and sites of my project disturbed conventions. By conducting fieldwork with a diverse population of unaccompanied young male migrants in Cape Town who had traveled to South Africa from different West and Central African countries, had formed ties with each other in the city, and had organized themselves as deft economic networks that tentacled across the urban underworld, I was not studying a familiar diaspora of migrants joined by shared national bonds or a common ethnicity (cf. Greenburg 2010; Morreira 2013; Steinberg 2006). In further contrast to existing research in South African cities, particularly work in Cape Town, I had not embarked on a bounded fieldsite study on the lives of migrants in a specific suburb (cf. Dodson and Oelofse 2000; Owen 2011).
The comment next concerned how I had failed to articulate my study in terms of the topical national debates and pressing political agendas that prominently shape the landscape of scholarship in contemporary South Africa (Becker 2007). Misaligning or at least too loosely connecting my research to these agendas, failing to pose my project “in terms of social ‘application’ or ‘intervention’” (Gillespie and Dubbeld 2007:129), the relevance of my fieldwork was brought into question.
Though research on African migrants and refugees in South Africa was prolific at the time of my fieldwork (2006–2009), responding to vociferous discussion across and beyond the country about the presence and well-being of the millions of African foreign nationals who had come to South Africa since the end of apartheid (Crush and McDonald 2000; Hassim, Kupe, and Worby 2008; HRW 2006; Madsen 2004; McDonald et al. 2000), I had not framed my work—a study of entrepreneurialism and survival in the shadows of an African city via networks of young male migrants—within such topical terms. I was reprimanded especially at the start of my fieldwork for not centering “xenophobia” sufficiently in my research proposals, a key word in postapartheid discourse (Desai 2008; Neocosmos 2006; Nyamnjoh 2006; Sichone 2008), which gained heightened saliency in May 2008, midway through my fieldwork, following a wave of exceptionally violent attacks on African foreign nationals in Johannesburg and Cape Town (Landau 2010; Pillay 2013). Circumnavigating urban South Africa in different orbits of surveillance and exchange to the majority of African migrants and refugees there, with different energies, aspirations, and social and relational fields, the youths I worked among were not seen as pertinent subjects for research at a time when migrancy and neighborliness had returned the nation so urgently to global headlines. The migrants were too minor to Migrant Studies to warrant ethnographic scrutiny.
Remarks about the right and wrong “kinds of migrants” gestured principally, however, to an especially unsubtle moral politics I came to observe at large in the South African academy. Within this rubric, studies of the most destitute members of society hold priority and are most encouraged. I should study “poorer migrants” instead, I was told various times by my hosts, and “the poorest of the poor” ideally, migrants and refugees from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, or Malawi: “the makwerekwere.”2 Or, the same scholars added, if I did not plan to work with the poorest migrants in Cape Town, I should study migrants the most vulnerable to xenophobic violence in urban South Africa: the Somalis. The poorest or most vulnerable migrants in Cape Town were held up to me as deserving and legitimate subjects of ethnographic attention. The youths I had elected to study could not be placed among them.
An “anomalous” study such as mine, therefore, as one senior anthropologist described it, of young migrants in Cape Town who forge modest but regular means of livelihood despite their poverty and who find ways to survive relatively unharmed in the city despite the continuous risks of violence they face was viewed as outlier research, dubious. It furthermore threatened to unstitch an established, but I will argue also myopic, narrative about African migrants and refugees in the new South Africa as wholly impoverished and helpless victims. One researcher long experienced in advocacy efforts with migrants in Cape Town said my research could detract from the important ongoing work of scholars and NGOs in South Africa in drawing public attention to migrants’ adversities. “Worse, James,” she joked very seriously, “studying those gangs of yours will give the impression that all migrants in Cape Town are ‘Nigerian’ drug dealers!” Animated by anxieties specific to the migrants I had chosen to work with—elusive young men associated popularly with crime and violence; wily, miscreant urban figures; or, as iterated above in crude but locally understandable terms, “Nigerians”—anthropologists tried to coax me away from conducting research that would likely and inconveniently conclude that small numbers of poor African migrants in South Africa negotiate urban life with a degree of successfulness (see Simone 2004 for a crucial essay from Johannesburg that reaches similar conclusions). Attending to the wrong kinds of African migrants, my study was seen to endanger a responsible, mindful, postapartheid anthropology premised on an “ethic of care” for the poor and vulnerable (Spiegel 2005).
Urban Poverty and Vulnerability
In her sensitive research on low-income households on the margins of the city, Fiona Ross describes political and economic processes that have produced a notoriously segregated landscape of wealth and poverty in Cape Town (Ross 2010, 2015). She references landmark works that historicize the study of urban poverty in South Africa, a reading of which might help explain why ethnographic research in South Africa today centers so consistently on the lives of the most vulnerable, the most harmed, and the most destitute and why South African anthropologists tend to see and critique their work inimitably in expressly moral terms.3 Possibly in contrast to how the urban poor have been constructed as an object of inquiry in anthropology elsewhere in the world, relatively late in the discipline’s histories (Das and Randeria 2015), Ross reminds us that anthropologists of southern Africa have been attentive to urban poverty for a very long time and have always conceptualized it politically.
My aim here is not to query the sentiments of the anthropologists in Cape Town who generously hosted and guided me during my fieldwork. Nor is it to enter ongoing local debates over whose research subjects are most relevant or appropriate (Nyamnjoh 2012; Van Wyk 2013). I want to pause instead on a small fragment of detail buried within the remarks made about the migrants in my project to elaborate a puzzle or inconsistency of urban life that I think is known to many who live in Cape Town but that is strangely often passed over in writings and reports on the urban poor. I want to present examples of this disconnect in the paper ethnographically.
As well as reinforcing this volume’s core claim that the urban poor do not make up a uniform whole (“the poorest of the poor” is an idiomatic phrase in South African scholarship, state discourse, and public conversation that already acknowledges their diversity), by framing my choice as between the poorest migrants from Southern African states on the one hand and the Somali migrants targeted most visibly by anti-immigrant violence on the other, South African anthropologists were also decoupling poverty and vulnerability as two contests of life in Cape Town. Many migrants in Cape Town live in appallingly impoverished conditions and struggle desperately to find work and housing, they explain, and many migrants are victims of violence, intimidation, and discrimination at the hands of state officials and local residents (a definition of vulnerability I use throughout the following sections), but, and crucially, these are not synonymous populations. My hosts were carefully separating two aspects of life among the urban poor that are widely assumed to coincide within the same groups and persons (as may indeed be the case for many poor black South Africans in much of Cape Town; see, e.g., Seekings and Nattrass 2005). Their comment helped me query the reliability of poverty as an index of migrants’ well-being and safety.
Reports into the causes of the organized violence against African foreign nationals in South African cities in May 2008 made similar conclusions (e.g., Bekker et al. 2008; FMSP 2009; HSRC 2008). While narrative accounts of the violence describe a general building up of antagonism and tense entanglement among the urban poor in South Africa since the 1990s, between African migrants and refugees and poor black South Africans most prominently, the statistical data painted a contrary and more specific picture. The data showed that the foreign nationals who suffered most directly from the anti-immigrant violence in 2008 (in terms of assets lost and physical injuries) were not the poorest.4 Anti-immigrant violence did not peak in areas of greatest social deprivation. Challenging sensational media coverage, the poorest African migrants in South African cities, who made up the majority of persons in the relief camps set up in the aftermath (Robins 2009), were very rarely victims of interpersonal violence.
Poor Men with Money
I conducted fieldwork in Cape Town between 2006 and 2009 with four networks of young male migrants aged 18–35, comprising almost eighty youths total from nine West and Central African countries. Their average age was 23 years. Almost all were unmarried and childless. I set out to understand how these migrants, representatives of a growing population of African youth crisscrossing international borders in search of employment and refuge, created opportunities for themselves in South Africa without legal documents, the support of family members, and the benefits of belonging as citizens.
The migrants demonstrated aptitude and resourcefulness as economic actors in Cape Town, a finding mirrored in comparative research on youth and livelihood in other cities (e.g., Cole 2005; De Boeck and Plissart 2005; Durham 2000; Hansen 2008; Honwana and De Boeck 2003; Mains 2012; Sommers 2012; Tienda and Wilson 2002; Weiss 2009). I sought to understand how they accomplished this. I studied the relations the migrants forged with patrons and partners in the city to courier and trade in small goods and illicit items. I mapped “territories” within which they worked and provided services. I observed how their mobility and forms of companionship made possible by their memberships in networks offered ways to elide the surveillance of the state and cultivate new niches for work.
The city itself became my fieldwork’s central actor. Its fast-changing form creates inconstant openings of opportunity and exposure. Attuned to its cadences and rhythms, the migrants made decisions to live and work in ambiguous, fast-changing urban areas in central Cape Town in which the possibilities for both fortune and risks were high. They poised themselves at volatile, distrustful nodes of citywide networks that exposed them to profound fluctuations in income and safety. These fluctuations make it hard to label these migrants stably as moneyed or impoverished, as vulnerable to risk or immune from it (though they identified passionately as both poor and vulnerable in our earliest discussions). Rather, and as I hope I bring out in what follows, there was always an unsteadiness to their wealth and well-being. Onsets of poverty and vulnerability were frequent and hard to anticipate. Daily life undulated between extremes; the young men found this terrifying and exciting. I was not convinced by the claims they made that the violence they were subjected to bore solely the name of xenophobia.
Such opacities—a conspicuous access to money; blurry urban zones in which the migrants lived and worked; their rapid, unseen movements and vast reach of connections; an ability to survive in times of crisis; the sometimes illicit wares of their trade—turned these youths into persons of intense suspicion. They embodied a type of African migrant rife in public discourse, which made them infamous despite their small numbers: stylish, strong, and untrustworthily flush young men; “Nigerians” associated with unlawful activities and gangster violence, exemplifying capacities pungent with millennial capitalism and occult economies (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999).
I thus found and felt poverty and vulnerability throughout my fieldwork in Cape Town, but not continuously or transparently or in ways that matched the descriptions, calculations, and intensities of poverty and vulnerability presented in most literatures on migrants in South Africa. In the following sections I try to bring out some sides to this: first, some scenes from a group of migrants’ nighttime work in the inner city, which shows young migrants amassing not insubstantial sums of money together from guarding cars and team trading in small goods and drugs, yet becoming progressively more vulnerable by doing so; second, the history of a household of different male migrants in the coastal suburb of Muizenberg, which initially thrived as a dormitory shelter for unaccompanied boys and young men but eventually succumbed to economic pressures and neighborly violence and emptied. These portraits muddy standard descriptions of urban life because they show poverty and vulnerability to be closely connected facets of daily life but in unpredictable ways and not directionally associable. The lifeworlds of this specific cadre of migrants might be best characterized by slight, irregular, and often rapid oscillations between prosperity and scarceness, danger and safety, solidarity and isolation. I argue anthropology’s focus on the poorest and most vulnerable migrants in South Africa eclipses such complexities and accomplishments.
Three points come through the ethnography. First, we see a flow of money through the hands and households of the migrants, sometimes in plentiful amounts. The youths’ trickiest challenge, in most cases, was not how to obtain money but rather how to hold it, keep it, and transform it into something of permanence. In the words of one migrant, they struggled to find ways to make their money “work” for them.
Second, the ethnography shows unsteady, at times even inverse, relations between poverty and vulnerability. As the migrants’ entrepreneurial efforts began to blossom, for example, they faced greater scrutiny and resentment on the streets of the city. They scaled momentarily out of the discreetness and perhaps even security of poverty to become exposed and endangered. This challenges assumptions of poorness as a reliable gauge of social security.
Third, the ethnography shows once more how newfound prosperity among the urban poor places strain on relationships. This is where my paper speaks with other contributions from sub-Saharan Africa in this volume, where poverty and politics are explored in terms of relational wealth (De Boeck 2015; Englund 2015; Ross 2015). Among the young migrants, specifically from the perspective of the networks they worked and lived within, the advent of even small sums of money disturbed relations. Economic fortune thus not only brought heightened risks of violence and visibility, it also threatened to destabilize the bonds constitutive of the networks that allowed them to work and accumulate wealth as economic actors in the first place.
The migrants’ work in Green Point ends promptly at 2 a.m. Though some of the cars they have been watching over since dusk remain unclaimed, thus unpaid for on the streets, they know it is unsafe to stay out longer in the city once the crowds have dispersed and the coldness and quietness set in. We gather to talk through the evening’s events and redistribute the money they have earned. An older migrant counts the pooled bills and coins at lightning speed and then dispenses the money back to the men in similar-sized handfuls. Money is stored over as many bodies as possible. No one risks traveling the city with the entire network’s earnings on their person. As they now start to leave their workplace to travel homeward through Cape Town in pairs and small groups, the youths are at their most vulnerable. These are the hours when the assaults and arrests of “Nigerians” occur.
For 6 months of fieldwork in Cape Town, for three or four evenings each week, I accompanied a 10-strong group to Green Point at nightfall to observe them guarding cars belonging to locals and tourists who patronize the restaurants and nightclubs in this expensive suburb.5 It is the classic occupational niche for male African migrants in Cape Town: an informal security service built from personal contacts; a line of work that demands charisma, patience, and an imposing physique more than permits or qualifications. The small sums of money migrants earn from guiding cars into parking spots on the streets and watching them until the owners return mask and enable their concurrent and considerably more profitable sales in “SIM cards,” the term we jointly invented for the small goods and illicit items being sold simultaneously. On a Friday or Saturday night, individual nightly earnings from guarding cards and selling “SIM cards” could exceed R200 per person, a considerable sum of money.
Although they are viewed by many in Cape Town as perfunctory and unskilled, I came to appreciate the remarkable collective organization and discipline their work required. The work is neither self-explanatory nor easy to observe. The migrants’ successfulness as car guards depends on the men always varying their roles and approaches, on staying alert and unseen in the city, on knowing when to use charm and when to show muscle, and on hiding their individual identities to present themselves publicly as an indistinguishable mass. Their well-practiced, unspoken, collaborative actions are swift and minute. The men dress deliberately in ways that make it hard to tell one migrant from another. It took me several weeks of strained observations before I started to fully appreciate the myriad surveillance practices, nonverbal signals, choreography of roles and positions, and techniques of the body that make up the network’s collective movements, all of which are designed to ensure that every potential customer is seen by the network and that risks and threats are detected early.
They taught me some of these movements. The first of these, “following,” referred to how the migrants watch each other on the streets. Each youth is assigned another youth to follow throughout a night’s work; this migrant follows another in turn. The web of surveillances forms a circuit among the migrants designed to ensure the network sees every potential customer. I sketched down their sight lines.
“Following” means the migrants have to keep track of two “stations” at once. As well as working their own corner or stretch of street in Green Point, the men must also ensure that the brother they are following has registered possible clients nearby, whistling to them if they appear distracted. It also means each migrant watches more than people. They must follow what has happened in an entire environment and also what might possibly happen to come. It is quite challenging in practice because “targets” are not always easy to categorize. Even close up, it can be hard to discriminate between a customer returning to their car, a shopper looking for a sale, and a passerby, each of which requires a different body, face, and style of approach. The men use every clue available to help classify their targets and assess situations for risks: clothing, walking patterns and speeds, sounds, eye movements, and the size, race, age, and sex of bodies. Green Point can be swarming at its busiest times. As many visitors to Cape Town will experience, however, car guards are almost always standing at an owner’s car by the time they return. This feels uncanny the first time you visit, because, unbeknownst to you, you have been watched.
The migrants’ maneuvers proved reasonable ways of addressing practical challenges, but I needed an elevated vantage point and a good teacher at my side before I could see them myself and appreciate their effectiveness. Placid and suave, Soldier endured over 40 hours of being my “eyes” without complaint.
We start with following, says Soldier,6 because it will help me to start to see the working group as a coordinated team. He says I have been focusing too much on specific transactions the different migrants make. Soldier instead wants me to recognize “how we see everything.” He said boys at home in Kinshasa learn to trust each other this way. At street level, it is simply not possible to grasp all of their lines of vision from any single place, even to see all the migrants. Soldier is pushing me to see the network beyond its people: to take into account the street, the cars, the clothes of others, lights and shadows in Green Point, and sounds of traffic, sirens, migrants’ whistles, and laughter. The men trust the network to see on their behalf.
He shows me the migrants “dancing” next—a range of arm gestures and hand signals that convey information to the others. These can alert the network to an excess of customers to deal with in a particular location (rapidly opening and closing both hands), a significant sale that has been made (a fist is punched into the other hand; this also alerts a supervisor that a migrant is carrying a large amount of cash), or a near shortage of “SIM cards” (reloading a machine gun against the stomach). Dancing gestures are relayed from migrant to migrant until either Brad or Wesley, whichever supervisor is roaming Green Point, is informed. The communication chain is faster than using cell phones, which are avoided because of the costs and attention they incur.
As Soldier and I observed and discussed the network’s work on the Green Point streets, I learned of the stories and mementos recited through bodies and words that were attached to many parts of the men’s work. The precision with which they worked mirrored a precision in language the men used to speak about it. The names and parts of some of their maneuvers used in guarding and selling reached far back into their pasts. “Switching,” for example—changing migrants between guarding posts periodically to prevent one migrant’s face gaining unnecessary recognition by the police or patrons—was devised, they said, after masked Bakongo hunting rituals the youths had seen as children in which the identities of masked men performing (men they knew) were concealed from spectators. Presenting themselves as identical shells of persons but concealing and changing the individual inside, this practice partly addressed their security concerns in Green Point.
Other maneuvers were devised in South Africa. They said they had learned to copy Zimbabwean migrants’ habits of storing the takings of their work in sellable commodities. During an evening’s work, every hour or so, up to 1 a.m., the supervisors would gather coins earned from the men and snake over to Long Street to exchange them into bills, cigarettes, or “SIM cards,” which they could sell immediately. Such items were redistributed among the migrants to ensure no single migrant held the entire proceeds of their work at once.
Migrants’ actions in guarding and selling together proved coordinated, interdependent, and remarkably effective. The gestures and tactics they used were neither automated actions nor original inventions produced by contingencies or challenges of working in the city center. Rather, the men had assembled strategies to use in Green Point by copying others or finding ways to deploy old skills in a new economic setting. Shared terms personalized and dramatized their work. Past life operations found fresh use in this new city.
We see a migrant network here operating as a tightly ordered and profitable organization. Internally structured by a set of roles and duties that make up a working whole, the network deployed carefully planned techniques and strategies with corporate consistency. The migrants read moving landscapes collaboratively, arranging themselves in and across different working locations to boost their economic opportunities. They operated in the presence of tight surveillance, suspicion, and violence. Though individual migrants hold distinct places in the network’s history and life—among themselves, each youth is known within the network for his distinct portfolio of skills, knowledge, and characteristics—at work on the streets, all of the migrants ultimately prove substitutable and secondary to the welfare and work of the network as a whole.
It was always difficult for me to reconcile the different intensities in the migrants’ behavior in Green Point. They conveyed palpable enthusiasm to work in this unsafe locality; migrants assigned car guarding duties elsewhere begged a transfer to Green Point. Even after incidents of violence, confrontations involving police or rival migrant groups, work spirits stayed high. When troubles occur on the streets, the network’s priority was to return to guarding positions as soon as possible. Migrants also know that the police will not intervene in fights between migrants or between migrants and local youths unless a tourist or a bar patron in Green Point is involved. “We’re alone out here,” one youth told me, emphasizing the vulnerability of the migrants in the inner city. They warned me many times that their sales pitch in Green Point could be lost instantaneously.
The Death of a Household
Joshua and Babatunde acquired the lease to their house in Church Street, Muizenberg, in February 2002, a sand-swept terrace tucked one street behind the scruffy coastal suburb’s main road. They lived in Church Street together until March 2008, sharing the house with large numbers of young male migrants they affectionately called their “sauvage boys,” whom they spoke of as both being employed by them and as under their care.
In 2002, when the men negotiated the lease to the Church Street house, Muizenberg was a thriving and greatly preferred place of residence for scores of African migrants and refugees new to South Africa (Owen 2011). Large migrant families moved into cheap, vacant houses and apartments in the area. Newcomers sought bed space in the homes of fellow nationals. Sensing opportunity, Joshua and Babatunde left their small apartment in the city to rent a larger property in Muizenberg and take in young tenants on a short-term basis, particularly those they deemed to have earning potential. They reasoned that the move would formalize their fledgling odd-job business in the Muizenberg area and enhance their status as connected, benevolent patrons. Joshua told me that over 60 boys had stayed with them since 2002.
In late 2006, when I met Joshua and Babatunde through three youths they employed, the household had stabilized to a dozen longer-term occupants. This occurred at a time when many migrants were starting to move out of Muizenberg to suburbs in the north or into townships, priced and pushed out by community efforts to regenerate and more strictly police the neighborhood—a demonstration of the fast-changing, patchwork geography of wealth, tolerance, and risk that characterizes the city’s urban form. Joshua and Babatunde’s once flourishing enterprises began to wane thereafter. In March 2008, unable to pay the rent they owed and fearing the repercussions that would follow from a formal eviction process, the men and their boys moved out.
The Muizenberg household was the largest in my study. Between December 2006 and March 2008, it comprised twelve permanent members. Joshua and Babatunde, 10 years older than the other members, comanaged the men’s work and household affairs. It was unusual among the migrant households I surveyed for its large and diverse membership, for how guests came by freely and frequently, and for how it remained fixed in one location for the bulk of its existence. Most unusually, however, it failed to demonstrate sufficient acuity of city life to withstand the financial and social pressures faced by young male migrants who tenant in Cape Town.
Church Street was two streets’ walk from where I lived. It held infamous status in the area. Church Street was singled out as the “epicenter of crime and antisocial behavior” in community and police forums in Muizenberg I attended at the start of my fieldwork. One enraged resident described the street as “a hell pit.” She called its mostly Congolese occupants “Nigerian drug pimps and gangsters.”
I spent many long evenings with members of the household. My relations there began in October 2006 when I met its three youngest occupants after a church service downtown that drew large migrant congregations: two cousins from Sierra Leone and their Liberian friend Simbah. I had seen Simbah’s Lone Star football shirt on Muizenberg’s beach several times before—he owned two of the shirts and was almost always wearing one of them—and that gave me a friendly comment to make as the four of us walked off in the direction of the train station. The three were impressed when I told them I had been to Liberia and had met several refugees from Simbah’s home county in Cape Town. We continued talking on the train, then over takeout coffee and chips on the beach, and later on the steps leading up to the Church Street house. I was struck by the ease with which the migrants poured out entire life stories to me at first meetings.
The mass of people and the sheer amount of activity in Church Street struck me most of all when I first visited the house in the last week of October: boys clambering over saucepans of rice and stew Joshua had laid out on the floor for dinner; clothes and blankets strewn over floors and the backs of chairs; fast music coming from a stereo in one corner and a London football match relayed from a radio in another, each on full volume; garbage and beer bottles in piles; newspapers; more boxes than I could count; a cracked TV on mute. The dirty living room, where eight youths also slept, was crammed. My entrance interrupted a mealtime, causing only a marginal disturbance. I was greeted inside like a close friend, told to step or sit where I wanted, then given a bowl and instructed to eat and drink. Dinner prefaced a typical evening in Church Street of talking and dancing and drinking that ended only when Babatunde decided to sleep and demanded quiet, or when the beer had finished, or when the Congolese pastor down the road knocked on the door to plead for noise restraint.
Calm conversation was an alien mode of speech there. You shouted to communicate. For private discussions, the youths and I stepped onto the steps outside or into the storeroom off of the kitchen, which doubled as the bedroom for Mukanzi and Saeed. Or we left the house altogether. Only Joshua and Babatunde had the capacities to guarantee stillness—Joshua through a sigh of “Well, well, well” that indicated an important statement would follow; Babatunde by punching a wall or a boy—but a compelling story or a hymn from one of the youths could sometimes hush the household.
After a month of visits, I had become a familiar guest in the household and was accordingly treated less respectfully, though always given food and expected to eat if I called by at night. I was not the household’s only regular visitor. The men had friends and lots of girlfriends from Muizenberg and farther away who stopped by frequently, sometimes overnight—other migrants, lost whites in the area searching for drinking or smoking partners, and a few black South Africans. I enjoyed my uninteresting presence in their dilapidated house. The ebullient, rowdy atmosphere was a refreshing contrast to the seriousness and dangerousness of the other sites in my project. Despite the squalor, Babatunde’s moodiness, and the declining state of the network’s operations, it was an animated space, where stories of the day and tales from home supplied ample material for rubbing and teasing. Joshua encouraged raucous behavior. Fagin-like, he held court on his worn armchair as the men played cards through the night, paraded girlfriends in and out, smoked, drank, and scuffled. Lines between a playful argument and violence were sometimes hard to decipher. There were comical moments in Church Street, too, such as the occasional group prayers with the pastor, who prayed for the men’s souls and good fortune in their deal making. A memorable pastime was the youths’ reenactments of scenes from their favorite films. Titanic was a popular choice; Saeed and Davis could perform dialogues of courtship and drowning from memory, which had everyone laughing and calling for encores.
My familiarity in Church Street meant the householders’ behavior was less and less censored around me. I learned of Babatunde’s volatile temper quickly. I started seeing him behave more roughly toward the others, which he had restrained during my first visits. His outbursts unsettled me. Once, after receiving news from Johannesburg of an overdue utility bill, he lost his temper with Mohammed and Ibrahim and shattered four glass bottles at their feet. I reacted hysterically. The boys put their heads down and drank on in silence, giggling once he left the room.
I watched the household start to struggle financially month by month. Each member was expected to contribute to the upkeep of the house, but because their business operations were stalling, limited to some informal trading and a few contract jobs here and there (delivering, hunting down spare parts for electricians and mechanics in rougher parts of Cape Town, odd gardening), incomes were increasingly scarce. The shared evening dinner was sometimes their only meal of the day. The men were less confident in Muizenberg today than in past years, I was told, and almost always back at the house before nightfall. The younger boys started spending more time in my apartment at night, slipping home in the early hours after SMS messages were sent to them saying Babatunde was asleep. Simbah and the Leoneans sheltered at my house if they had been unable to earn during the day, which was common by late 2007. Joshua said to me that the pressures of making ends meet in the house were affecting Babatunde’s mood. It accounted for his rages and “new love of drinking.”
Church Street was the least discreet household I knew. As did other bachelor migrant households on Church Street, it achieved notoriety for its loudness and many visitors. Reflecting a growing, more acceptable intolerance toward migrants and refugees across the city by this time, it was blamed more openly and specifically for crime and drug sales in the area. Household members tried turning their increasingly anomalous status in Muizenberg into a story of themselves as a vanguard group. The men bonded more closely together.
Feuding between the migrants and their neighbors intensified. Bricks were thrown through windows on weekends and the men faced harassment on the streets. Tensions peaked in January 2008 when two household members were assaulted with broken glass and a spade, after which their pastor, rather than condemning the action and intervening in the community, pleaded they find a new house. A new property was hard to secure given the network’s size and now limited finances. The house they finally found in Retreat, three stops along the train line toward Cape Town, was smaller, more expensive, and in a suburb with fewer migrants. The extent of the household’s poverty was revealed to me on the day of their move in late January when their things fell apart as we lifted their furniture onto a pickup truck I had hired for them.
Joshua and Babatunde tried hard to recreate an atmosphere of dormitory playfulness in the new, quiet, and discreet property, but they had lost their remaining trading posts during the move and struggled to find new sales partners. Men were often left stranded in Muizenberg late into the night from where journeying home alone was terrifying. Girlfriends stayed longer and more often.
Unable to maintain itself, the household in Retreat dissolved in May 2008 even though there was no violence nearby. Alternative places to live had become better options; for some, these included the government camps for displaced persons. In January 2009, when I concluded my fieldwork, Joshua, Babatunde, and four other migrants were living in a single room of a shared building in Woodstock. Simbah and the Leoneans moved back to Johannesburg. The others moved first to the camp in Wynberg, later to the camp in Harmony Park, after which I lost contact with them. Two eventually elected to take the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation and left South Africa.
Reflections on Not Studying the Poorest of the Urban Poor
I set out to map the relational networks young unaccompanied migrants in urban South Africa lived and worked within as fully and carefully as possible—networks that bound the migrants together and through which they earned livelihoods, created opportunity, and kept themselves safe—in response to gaps I found in the literature, which expresses and theorizes forms of connectedness and action among the urban poor through social and economic networks extensively but that often lacks detailed descriptions of networks’ day-to-day maneuvers and movements. The migrants I worked among were not the poorest African migrants in Cape Town, even the migrants in Muizenberg, whom I watched fall quite quickly from a previous state of plenty.
The teams of young migrants I studied proved fortuitous economic actors in a competitive and dangerous city. Their excitement for work in the most hazardous parts of the inner city was often contagious. Yet their access to money made them persons of suspicion and increasingly vulnerable. They also struggled to transform their money into long-lasting assets or to spend and consume it efficiently. Landlords leasing apartments and houses to them exorbitantly inflated rental costs. Excluded from community organizations and rejected by NGOs that provide assistance to African foreign nationals in the city, they did not have access to formal banking services. Their uncertain legal statuses led to their avoidance of state officials. Our times together were strangely often more relaxed, enjoyable, and comradely when poverty and destitution set in: when money was short, relations were full; then, too, life in the city was safer. Poverty appeared to cloak or insulate the migrants from other kinds of danger, including threats of brotherly betrayal and rivalry.
The ethnography shows how African migrants in Cape Town are entangled in a miscellany of racial, social, economic, and political tensions that characterize contemporary South Africa.7 The politics of urban migrants are central to the story of the new South Africa. The ethnography posits migrants’ informal employment and housing as especially prominent intersections. The targeting of the Church Street household by its once friendly neighbors underscores the tenseness of the urban landscape in which migrants live. Drawn into a particularly sensitive firestorm around housing that is now making itself center stage in South African politics, the migrants are embroiled in disputes and dramas extending far beyond neighborliness or immigration. An inquiry into the outbreak of violence against foreign nationals in South African cities in 2008, for example, cited the state’s scant provision of low-cost housing and the ability of migrants to rent property in sensitive areas of urban development as the two most significant factors contributing to growing anti-immigrant sentiments (HSRC 2008). The growing presence of migrants as urban tenants and entrepreneurial street salesmen is loaded with political significance. Through their everyday accomplishments and visibility, migrants such as those I worked among reminded those around them of the slow pace of wealth redistribution since democratization. They reinforced a sore, past precedent concerning the limited prospects for poor black South Africans to claim the city of Cape Town as theirs. For these reasons, Cape Town was not a neutral backdrop in front of which the lives of urban youths unfolded but instead played an active role in determining which forms of living and livelihood were possible. Cities themselves are prominent actors in urban ethnographies of the politics of the poor.
The ethnography further shows poverty and vulnerability to be closely connected facets of urban life, but more dynamically than assumed, not associable in predictable ways. Far more detailed analysis is needed on how poverty, well-being, vulnerability, and opportunity connect and overlap among the urban poor in cities such as Cape Town and why assumptions that equate poverty with vulnerability persist so strongly in the social scientific literature.
The unstable disconnections between the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Cape Town I have attempted to sketch out are likely specific for African migrants and for younger male migrants especially. The challenges these young migrants face, however, have implications for generalizations made about the politics, relational infrastructures, and the accomplishments of the urban poor. I suggest that anthropology’s unrelenting focus on the most disadvantaged members of society, the “poorest of the poor,” is screening off vast terrains of urban life from our analysis.
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