By Tamuka Chekero, University of Cape Town, South Africa

In South Africa, migration is a prominent and swiftly developing phenomenon. Because of its economic and political atmosphere, which remains relatively calm, South Africa attracts both migrants and refugees from neighbouring African countries and beyond. The primary centres for receiving refugees and migrants are urban areas. Yet, sadly, limited immigration and resident documentation, or the absence of such documentation, limits refugees’ and migrants’ access to employment, opportunities and rights.

Evidence from South Africa continues to show also that restrictions are accompanied by increasing hostility. This hostility displays itself in a variety of ways and from different actors. From state body actions including police roadblocks, and denied access to health care, the community mobilised anti-immigrant movements like Operation Dudula, to citizen-run campaigns like, Put South Africans First. These physical, social, political, and economic ‘borders’ and ‘boundaries,’ as refugees and migrants perceive them, are lines between ‘locals’ and ‘foreign people.’ They do not just keep people out, instead, they are used for defining wide-ranging aspects such as identity, belonging, inclusion and exclusion, among others.

In my PhD research, I interpret borders as tools for creating restrictions for refugees in socioeconomic circumstances. Borders serve as barriers and impediments that prevent refugees from getting essential services and exercising their legal rights. For example, when healthcare practitioners come to engage with refugees or migrants, they have the power to withhold services or influence the distribution and type of service delivered.

Secondly, I understand boundaries in terms of the social and geographical demarcations that exclude refugees. Boundaries in this context include, among other things, tangible barriers, such as obstructive natural or artificial, social, political, and economic infrastructure that limits the livelihood spaces, possibilities, and entitlements of refugees. Challenges arising from these borders and boundaries obstruct access to space in a metropolis as well, such as Cape Town in South Africa. For example, defined borders can specify who is to be included in space and who is to be excluded from it, as well as the location of the experience of exclusion.

Even though boundaries and borders might impede the mobility of refugees in Cape Town, refugees deploy creative and innovative strategies to either negotiate or circumvent boundaries and social borders. In coping with such challenges, refugees possess various social networks such as friendships lubricated by conviviality and sociality. This blog focuses on the dynamics of refugees’ intra-city movements and how they navigate the boundaries and borders within the city. I first discuss the challenges that refugees face, and then I consider the normative and practical coping mechanisms that individuals improvise to deal with and adjust to borders and boundaries.

The South African Context

Refugees in South Africa are considered in numerous national legal and policy frameworks. These include the South African Refugees Act of 2011, which gives the 1951 Refugee Convention and its protocols legal force, as well as the country’s Constitution. Regardless of refugees being accommodated in this way, Balbo and Marconi note in their study that political decisions frequently do not take refugees and migrants into account.

More so, social restrictions and frontiers, such as roadblocks and local animosity, impede refugees’ daily activities. They are held responsible for contributing to urban socioeconomic problems like traffic violations, ‘stealing jobs from locals’ and other problems including increased poverty, lack of resources and horrifying crime rates. These are structural issues that are not always caused by refugees. Despite having protections guaranteed by the South African Constitution, research continues to show that refugees are excluded and marginalized in mobility and survival activities.

As a result, refugees frequently use informal, refugee social networks to address their everyday challenges rather than formal institutional frameworks or immigration and refugee policy frameworks. In their quest for survival, refugees learn the right places, times, and ways to move as well as the right places, times, and ways to not move. Refugees may choose to be ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ and when to become refugees/asylum seekers or not.

This is similar to the term ‘tactical cosmopolitan’, which was coined by Landau and Freemantle. They observed that in the face of rising South African nationalism, strict immigration laws, and xenophobia, immigrants have reacted by negotiating partial involvement in South Africa’s developing society without becoming constrained by it. My research shows that refugees employ social networks for this purpose, for example, friendship connections can be formed between law enforcement personnel and other people in positions of power.

Roadblocks limiting the mobility and survival potential of refugees in Cape Town

Travelling inside and between cities is extremely difficult for many refugees in South Africa. This situation has gotten worse as a result of police roadblocks. Roadblocks are not though a recent development in South Africa. Historically, they have been a typical approach to monitoring and controlling movement in South African cities and small towns. As noted by Rautenbach roadblocks have previously been put in place to help reduce crime in the country. But recently, they have grown and altered in terms of their main objective.

In Cape Town, roadblocks play a significant role in establishing boundaries and/or serving as internal borders. In contrast to other nations, South Africa places these roadblocks to seek ‘foreigners’, and some of them are ‘community-based’ movements, such as Operation Dudula.

My PhD research found that the number of roadblocks set up in Cape Town by the Traffic Police, Metro Police, South Africa Police Services (SAPS), and agents from the Department of Home Affairs is rising. These are put in place to identify migrants or refugees who lack the necessary travel documentation. As a result, migrants and refugees found without requisite documentation are arrested before being deported home. Such internal boundaries are present in a large number of minor South African towns and cities, including Giyani (a small town in the north-eastern part of the Limpopo Province of South Africa where I have previously conducted research) and Cape Town, respectively.

Refugees I worked with indicated that the N1 highway, which connects Johannesburg and Cape Town, is one of the major routes in Cape Town where the police routinely set up roadblocks. The N1 highway lies next to Maitland, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. The reason for the blockage in Maitland is that the suburb serves as a significant hub for many important transit lines that connect Cape Town. The middle of the suburb is also crossed by the main railway route. The area has long served as an important hub for local transit.

In addition to Maitland, refugees also highlighted that the police also established roadblocks in Bellville city, which has a diverse population of South Africans and foreign nationals. The police focus on the area because they think Bellville is where most cross-border buses pick up and drop off cross-border passengers going to or coming from Durban and Johannesburg through the N1 or the N2 highways.

Participants in my study felt that, even though the main goal of police roadblocks is to deter crime, foreign nationals and refugees are frequently the targets of these roadblocks. In further probing about roadblocks, one of my participants Alia had this to say:

We are just targeted for reasons including lack of documentation, and driver’s license, but we feel like they are selective in their stop and search. It feels like they are mainly targeting us non-South Africans. I think our encounter with the police is made worse by our failure to fluently speak the local language.

Alia’s sentiments were widely shared by many refugees I interviewed. The majority of refugees believe that police socially profile them. In Cape Town, the refugees claim that the police undertake roadblocks utilizing a multi-agency approach. Drivers are stopped and searched for a range of crimes. These offenses include driving while intoxicated, possessing weapons that might be deadly, moving hazardous and unlawful materials, and, more recently, transporting undocumented people (for example undocumented refugees).

In their opinion, refugees I spoke with feel that these stops and searches are carried out at the police officer’s discretion. The police may ambush using unmarked vehicles while working undercover to witness crimes in particular circumstances as opposed to always erecting barriers.

Many of the refugee drivers I spoke with claimed that there is a difference in treatment between locals and foreigners at the roadblocks. Refugees claimed that while they are checked, South African citizens who can speak the local languages fluently are not stopped and, when they are, they are not subjected to further interrogation or harassment. One of my participants Achimwene revealed his observations and experiences of roadblocks as follows:

A South African who speaks isiXhosa and says ‘molo bhuti’ or ‘Molo sis’ (hello brother or hello sister) or Afrikaans ‘Hallo suster’ (Hello sister) or ‘Hallo broer’ (hello brother) is more likely to be excused without further investigation than a foreign national who would dare to speak in English.

The above sentiments by Achimwene express a consensus of opinion among refugees I worked with. The majority of refugee drivers I worked with confirmed being subjected to scrutiny whenever they fail to effectively communicate in isiXhosa or Afrikaans. Similarly, my interlocutors confirmed what Klaaren and Ramji established in their previous study, namely that many refugees think that police officers’ discretion in such operations frequently occurs with little to no direct supervision from police managers or commanders who might be cautious of the obvious issues or inconsistent profiling. This is because when people who have been stopped at roadblocks ask to speak to the officers’ supervisors, they are frequently denied the opportunity.

According to refugees, profiling may be a tactic or the outcome of personal biases and fundamental presumptions. The majority of those I spoke with believed that police frequently conduct searches without having a thorough understanding of the legal and constitutional requirements. These incidents were validated as a historical practice in research conducted in 2004 by Gould and Mastrofski.

Conviviality and social networks in negotiating boundaries and borders in Cape Town

Refugees in South Africa nevertheless have learned to embrace a variety of social networks (including transnational networks) to negotiate the various boundaries and borders in the country. They devote resources to cooperation or group action to achieve this. Refugees can cross borders and boundaries, navigate life in Cape Town, or just get by relying on mutualism or co-reliance. The shocks and stresses brought on by obstacles are lessened for refugees thanks to collectivism. Networks of friendship and marital ties are just two of the many diverse kinds that refugees build.

Refugees confirmed making friendship connections with police officers. These connections are made in the course of everyday activities like meeting at religious gatherings (such as churches or mosques among others), in restaurants, or on social soccer platforms. The foundation for the development of such networks is what Nyamnjoh terms ‘conviviality.’ Gaps need to be bridged and connections made simpler to reach similarity and commonality. The goal of finding similarities and connections between refugees and certain police officers is to break down barriers and create mutuality.

Refugees who work together with the police are better able to anticipate obstacles and devise plans to address and reduce any risks by communicating closely. Some participants confirmed using their connections with the police to communicate and obtain information, for instance when there are roadblocks or raids aimed at refugees. Bra Eddie (pseudonym), one of my participants, admitted to learning about roadblocks from his friend, a police officer. He has the following to say:

In Maitland, there was an operation involving many law enforcement agencies that was focused on undocumented migrant nationals. The day before the operation, I was notified by a friend of mine who works as a police officer at Maitland police station. I had the chance to also inform my friends about the news.

The use of friendship connection is not unique to Bra Eddie. The majority of the refugees I worked with confirmed using friendship as a strategy to develop and maintain social relationships with the police. The friendship network would convert into social capital and grant them access to crucial information like police raids and covert roadblocks.

Here, I focus on one unexpected result: the same police officers who organize police roadblocks and raids against refugees and migrants may be available to refugees through personal networks, such as Bra Eddi’s friendship with the police officer. While such connections and information exchange are illegal, they are necessary for foreign nationals to sustain their lives in Cape Town. I regard these as ‘social navigation tactics’. Similarly, anthropologist scholar Mutsawashe H Mutendi refers to similar approaches as ‘making a plan’. This simply refers to many forms of ‘making do’, or how individuals cope with social and economic uncertainty, which can be illegal in some cases. Nonetheless, it should be noted in this context that illegality does not always imply immorality.

In light of this discussion, it is plausible to note that social networks are essential for assisting refugees in fostering their belonging in South Africa. Landau argues in favour of this idea by saying that social networks are essential for the integration of locals (in this case the police) and refugees because they encourage peace by removing obstacles and fostering relationships between them. Beyond national lines, connections are cultivated and maintained. Vulnerable refugees value these bridging relations, especially as a means of dealing with their transition to the city. Through relationships of interdependence and interlinkage, the effects of constraints on refugees’ livelihoods are also addressed.

Nonetheless, while social networks can help refugees adjust to their new lives and get access to crucial information, the fact that networks exist does not guarantee that they are easily accessible to everyone. Some people may be excluded, and some networks may collapse.


My research suggests that although borders and boundaries in form of roadblocks limit refugees’ ability to move throughout Cape Town, refugees employ inventive and creative strategies to navigate and negotiate them. Borders exist everywhere, yet as history has shown, they are permeable and porous, making them appear as a transient phenomenon.

My study establishes that despite the wider social environment being hostile to ‘foreigners’, it is still feasible for individuals to develop mutuality among themselves through the development of social ties that transcend nationality. The research demonstrates the possibility of cross-cutting relationships by illustrating how some refugees become friends with police officers while acknowledging the challenges that refugees encounter every day and the social profiles that define who belongs and who does not.

In addition to the established findings, my study raises the possibility that successful solutions must be developed in conjunction with South African stakeholders, including refugees. Intensifying policy actions should go hand in hand with improving refugee lives and lowering their vulnerability. It is necessary for the state to relax its stringent immigration and paperwork laws. Research conducted by Goodwin-Gill concluded that the South African alyssum system needs to be regulated. This is due to the refugees’ perception that the system is biased against them. Because of this, many are forced to (or choose to) reside illegally and run the risk of being detained and deported.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.