Undocumented Zimbabweans in South Africa: Working in a Constant Fear of Arrest and Deportation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Labour, Capital and Society / Travail, capital et société, Volume 49, Number 2, p.25 (2019)


For the past several years, South Africa’s response to “illegal” migration has been overly restrictive, exclusionary and control-oriented. Its approach has focused on arresting, detaining and deporting undocumented migrants. However, research from elsewhere shows that intensified immigration enforcement hardly achieves the presumed goal of mass deportation; instead, it subjects a great mass of deportable people to the threat/possibility of deportation – i.e., they experience “deportability.” The concept of deportability holds that the state exercises power on outsiders much more by making the threat/possibility of deportation more perceptible rather than by actually deporting “illegal” migrants. Based on ethnography with undocumented Zimbabwean migrants in eMalahleni, South Africa, this article examines how migration control makes the possibility of arrest and deportation, and the fear thereof, an everyday reality for undocumented migrants that adversely affects their work experiences. The article underscores that deportability disciplines and fashions undocumented migrant workers into more politically docile and economically exploitable workers.