Lessons learned from a student field trip

By maHp intern, Edward Govere

Between 14 – 21 May 2017, a group of students from the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) and Carleton University (Canada), went on a field trip to Wits Rural Facility (in Bushbuckridge) and Musina, respectively. The objective of the trip was to expand our knowledge of international migrant workers who live and work on farms, as well as some of the most remote rural areas in South Africa. Many of us were familiar with the living and working conditions of urban-based cross-border migrant populations, but did not have enough knowledge about migrant workers in rural areas. In this post, I reflect on my travel experience, highlighting some of the most important lessons gained throughout the trip.

In Lilydale, we learnt about the large-scale movement of refugees from Mozambique, following the Mozambican civil war which happened in the early 1980s. It was in this tiny rural village where we had the privilege of meeting Sam Nzima, a community leader in the area. Nzima – a former South African photographer in the apartheid era – took the iconic image of Hector Pieterson being carried away during the Soweto uprising. While Nzima may be growing old and starting to lose his eyesight, I found him very entertaining, engaging as he told us the history of Lilydale. The stories revolved around the notions of belonging, identity and inclusion. One of the most important lessons we learned was that the national government prescribes belonging and inclusion in more abstract terms compared to communities which interact with migrants on a daily basis. While the state tries by all means to exclude Mozambican refugees from the polity, the local communities in Mpumalanga regard the same people as virtually part and parcel of their communities. This is largely due to the fact that migrants and ‘locals’ in the area share the same ethnic background (i.e. common ancestral, language, social or cultural traits).

We also learned about the complexity of the problems surrounding the establishment of the African nation state. South African citizens in Bushbuckridge seem to have more in common with the Shangaans in Mozambique. This might help shed light on how artificial boundaries (created by colonial rulers) split ethnic groups into two separate adjacent countries. It also serves to show that former colonisers or post-war agreements among major powers regarding borders created monstrosities in which ethnic groups were separated, or thrown together without any respect for those groups’ aspirations (Alesina et al. 2006).

In Musina, we learned that interventions designed specifically for migrants are largely shaped by the political economy of donor intervention than they are by national imperatives. The interests of donors such as Doctors without Borders (MSF) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) along with ideas of health professionals constitute de facto policy in the forgotten small municipalities such as Musina. Thus, we are encouraged to rethink the application of a top-down approach in policy practice.

We also learned about the economic contribution of migrant farm workers in South Africa. As noted by one of the farmers in Alicedale, the vast majority of farm workers (about 80%) are foreign nationals and these workers contribute their fair share to the tax and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). This is yet another indication that migrant workers are an economic benefit, not burden, on the local economy although this is much more to the envy of the locals.

Limpopo: Maroi trip
In Limpopo we learned about the challenges faced by Zimbabwean border jumpers when trying to cross the 225-kilometre Limpopo River into South Africa. A number of these challenges were expressed through a dramatisation by a group of migrant farm workers based at the Maroi farm. At the Limpopo River, those risking their lives looking for greener pastures in South Africa have to negotiate not just the water, crocodiles that lurk below the water’s surface, razor sharp security fences, but the maguma guma gangs. Criminal gangs assist undocumented migrants wishing to cross into South Africa by cutting holes through the borders’ barbed wire fences. However, using these unchartered routes comes at a heavy price, as the maguma guma are known for raping, killing and stealing from undocumented immigrants trying to get into South Africa. The whole experience reminded me of how certain migrant groups live, work and pass through what Chetail and Braeunlich (2013) call ‘spaces of vulnerability’.

In simple terms, I cannot emphasise enough all the wonderful experiences and the many lessons learned while on such a rare research trip. As shown above, the trip did not only help illuminate the daily lives of migrant farm workers, but gave us a firsthand experience about some of the most important concepts taught in migration and displacement studies.