Inside Illegality: Migration Policing in South Africa after Apartheid

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Africa Today, Volume 48, p.35–47 (2001)



South Africa's migration policing policy has not changed substantially since the demise of apartheid. Tactics used by the police in recent operations are dramatically similar to apartheid policing practices. While some amendments to the legislative regime have aimed to protect human rights, the structures introduced have failed to make any impact. The discretion allowed to police has contributed to the institutional and symbolic entrenchment of the lack of legal status for undocumented migrants. At the level of implementation, the police and the army have played major roles in migration policing with no more than administrative oversight from the Department of Home Affairs. The policing strategy pursued has been one of border control backed up with intrusive and extensive internal military-style policing. Corruption is an institutional feature of both the arrest and detention of undocumented migrants. Numerous human rights abuses occur in the arrest and detention of undocumented migrants as well as of refugees. Despite the embarrassing attention of domestic and foreign human rights organizations exposing certain instances of abuse, the principal features of this policing strategy have remained intact and human rights abuses have continued through to the present.

Law and Personhood

The assembling of a new set of South African and global citizenships has taken on new urgency and a new plurality twenty years after the supposed advent of freedom. Categories make persons and persons make categories, as Jones and Dlamini have recently pointed out. In the South African constitutional text – where the phrase ‘categories of persons’ is written – race is but one of sixteen categories on the formal list. The Constitutional Court has added more.  Indeed, the effort of desegregating publics now takes place without the freshness of new symbols and with potentially stale institutions. In the public sphere, some responses to this era of citizenship reformation harken back to earlier times – either to times of forward-thinking, to times of social-making, or even to times of separating. Other responses rest in a consumptive present or appear as mere promised rhetorical bridges into the future. In this project WISER will examine the new questions that scholars in law, society and the humanities are posing themselves and others. What are the complex fashions in which bounded enclaves and social categories are fraying and unravelling or reforming? How, if at all, are persons remaking themselves as citizens? At the same time that these questions pose themselves, new fields of play are emerging with the changing audiences of the fashion shops and the sports terrains as well as the changing forms and formats of affluence and the new middle class. The very concept of a person as well as their categorical boundaries may shift with the movement of blood, organs, and self-awareness.

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