The Roots of Impermanence: Settlement, Transience and Farm Labour on the Zimbabwean-South African Border

Wednesday, 7 August, 2013 - 14:00

What is the role of settled, residential workplaces on the turbulent margins of contemporary South Africa? During the Zimbabwean crisis, millions crossed through the South African apartheid-era border fence, searching for ways to make ends meet. Many joined black farm-worker populations on white-settler farms, in turn shaped by the 'flexible' capital and crop flows of intercontinental export agriculture. Today's 'flexible capitalism' is commonly seen in terms of ephemerality and perpetual change. Local arrangements are commonly thought so ad-hoc and fleeting that contracts collapse into informality, employment into entrepreneurialism. Acute crisis is seen merely to hasten capitalism along its path. But on the Limpopo River, amidst transience, mass unemployment and short-term strategies of making do, resident workforces are settings in which people strive for a provisional permanence. This paper reveals how workforce hierarchies incorporate transient people: regular labor migrants; recent fugitives seeking work; actual or would-be dependents; and traders, drawn by the lucrative markets represented by hundreds of waged workers. It argues that, on the Zimbabwean-South African border, migrants have manifold reasons for moving, and are made labor migrants through their social incorporation, on unequal terms, at places of employment. Amidst southern African upheavals and global capitalism, workplaces are lifeplaces.