Asylum as a Form of Life: The Politics and Experience of Indeterminacy in South Africa

Fassin. D., Wilhelm-Solomon. M., and Segatti. A. (2017) Asylum as a Form of Life: The Politics and Experience of Indeterminacy in South Africa Current Anthropology 58, no. 2: 160-187. [DOI:]

According to the United Nations, in 2003 South Africa had the highest number of asylum seekers worldwide. This situation resulted from the combination of two factors: considerable migration flows from neighboring African countries and ineffective assessment procedures by the South African administration. Based on interviews with applicants or former applicants to refugee status as well as officials, adjudicators, and activists, our research focuses on the experience of existential indeterminacy endured by claimants and the signification of the ambivalent policies implemented by the state. We propose to analyze asylum as a form of life, rather than as bare life, not disambiguating the two meanings in tension in Wittgenstein’s reflections: a particular shared world and a universal human condition. We emphasize how this form of life is shaped by the law, according to Agamben’s analysis, although in an equivocal way, as individuals alternatively adapt to it or resist it. Beyond the South African case, we argue that this form of life is a major feature of contemporary society.

About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an Associate Researcher on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is the lead editor of the book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.