Convivial networks: how migrants cope with the pandemic in South Africa

Stanley (not his real name) is among many Zimbabwean migrants who left their home country, escaping the economic downturn and political instability. In search of greener pastures, he decided to leave his wife and three children behind in Zimbabwe some years ago. On arrival in South Africa, Stanley first stayed in Polokwane, the capital of Limpopo Province, before settling in Kimberly, the capital of the Northern Cape Province, where he now owns a barbershop. Owing to the Covid-19 measures put in place to fight the pandemic, such as the nationwide lockdown, social distancing and restricted movement, his small enterprise has since run dry.

One of our authors (Tamuka Chekero) met Stanley during his ongoing ethnographic research on the role of conviviality in cross-border social networks in southern Africa, which started in 2019 as part of his PhD in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Stanley is one of many migrants in South Africa who have seen their small businesses collapse because of the lockdown, leaving them stranded and unable to meet their needs and those of their families.

Despite the hardships, Stanley relies on fellow Zimbabweans in Kimberly, with whom he formed a rotating savings group – Stanley and his fellow members call it a “money rotating and grocery savings group”. These groups can range from a few members to several dozens. In Stanley’s group, as in many others, members select a leader who periodically collects a given amount of money from each member. The money is used in two ways. One is to buy food and other essential items in bulk, – for instance, cooking oil, flour, rice, soap and washing powder – thus making a saving for the members. The other use is to save part of the money collected, which is then shared in rotation to each group member at specified intervals. This is a way for members to save money so that bigger amounts can be used at a later stage.

Members can get interest-free loans from the group. The borrowing is also strategic. Members can lend money to other trusted non-members as a way of opening networks and opportunities for easy access to other services and opportunities in return.

Group membership is based on pre-existing relationships or other common ties: for instance group members might work for the same company, have the same ethnic or national background, share a bond of friendship or other neighbourhood or business ties. The support provided by these groups is not merely material or economic, it is also accompanied by relationships of conviviality where emotional support is received and given among members.

Stanley’s group has performed a vital role during the pandemic, providing a safety net that helped members through their financial woes. The lockdown measures also affected the way the group carries out its activities. It is difficult for members to meet in person as they used to do, and they now rely primarily on Whatsapp, where physical group activities such as cash and food collection and distribution are coordinated in line with social distancing regulations, and where members can update each other about their lives and their struggles and comfort each other.

Stanley’s story is in stark contrast with many representations of migrants by NGOs, academics, development actors and governments, that present and view migrants as passive beings. Policy-driven migration research and development interventions focus on defending the rights of vulnerable categories, but they do not often give a chance to people to tell their own stories.

To fully understand and engage with the lived experiences of migrants, fundamental aspects such as conviviality, social relations, social networks and individual dispositions that influence people’s health and wellbeing should not be ignored. These are essential in the maintenance of social ties and of migrant’s ability to support one another in times of crisis.

In their Covid-19 response packages, many African countries have tended to include migrants on paper, but excluded them in practice. In South Africa, the government has made significant efforts to support the unemployed and the vulnerable, but migrants struggle to access these subsidies. Ncumisa Willie and Faisal Garba argue in a recent piece that this is because migrants lack the documentation required by the government to access state-provided social relief food parcels and the relief fund, and in some cases are denied access to Covid-19 health care. There are also worrying reports that the South African government undertook mass deportations of migrants in the earlier stages of the lockdown, with little media attention.

Despite this harsh reality, Stanley and others develop their own forms of solidarity with other migrants to make up for the exclusions from state welfare services. But these networks cannot be described as merely based on economic calculus or survival. According to anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh, they entail convivial relationships, where people, through economic and social actions and emotional displays of friendship and solidarity, stress commonalities and sameness at the expense of divisions and differences.

Through networks facilitated by conviviality, migrants can gain access to basic services that could be otherwise unattainable. Among Zimbabweans in South Africa, social networks are spoken of as hushamwari or husahwira in Shona and as ubungane in Ndebele which is loosely translated as “friendship” – Shona and Ndebele speakers are the two biggest language groups in Zimbabwe.

What can be done?

In South Africa, but also in other parts of the African continent, there is need for co-creation of interventions between migrants and other stakeholders and policy intervention to improve migrant lives in South Africa as well as reducing their vulnerability.

Governments, development actors, civil society organizations and the humanitarian community, should consider mediation that is sensitive to migrants’ existing coping and survival strategies. They should collaborate with migrants, with organisations that vulnerable migrants trust (migrant-led organisations, faith-based organisations, diaspora associations, among others), and with local communities that migrants live with. Interventions should not aim to create structures anew, but rather develop existing social networks and solidarity efforts to increase access to basic social and health services and financial support.

These co-created interventions and policies should consider migrants’ intersecting vulnerabilities, such as migrant women, or migrants that are living with disabilities. Governments should offer undocumented migrants’ access to social protection such as cash assistance, temporary legal documents and security of stay while the crisis is ongoing. This strategy should be part of a longer-term effort to integrate migrants and guarantee them the full range of social rights they need to build a stable life in the host country.

Access to the available welfare grants is key also because migrants’ loss of livelihoods, especially in the informal economy, has increased their vulnerability and that of their communities of origin, which heavily depend on remittances sent from South Africa.

What Covid-19 is clearly showing is that to effectively control and curb the spread, all communities need to be included and cooperate with the state’s efforts. Leaving some people behind will only make the situation worse for everybody. This is one clear instance where the protection of people’s human rights goes hand in hand with the protection of the health and wellbeing of the whole society.

Tamuka Chekero, a Zimbabwean national, is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. His current research looks at how people who have crossed and re-crossed national borders form relationships, and make and maintain connections through conviviality in southern Africa. The project interrogates barriers and blockages in the mobility of people, ideas, and resources necessary to on-going world-making. His twitter handle is @taachekero

Helidah Refiloe Ogude, a South African-Kenyan national, is a PhD candidate in public and urban policy at The New School, New York City. Her research interests include racialised and transnational masculinities, racialised citizens, media semiotics, news discourse and migration policymaking. She has over ten years of experience working in international development, with organisations such as the World Bank, the International Crisis Group and the Government of South Africa. Her twitter handle is @DidiOgude

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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