“If I can just fix this …this small, small thing…then it can be better” Documentation, systemic violence and telling stories in South Africa

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Written by Rebecca Walker

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Between 2017-2019, myself and a colleague worked with a small group of women from across the African continent, now living in Johannesburg on an arts-based project entitled Mwangaza Mama.i Each Friday the group would meet to share breakfast, tell stories and work on quilt pieces that we were creating together. During these meetings the women would often talk about the everyday challenges of life in South Africa; of finding work, paying rent, covering school fees, accessing healthcare and staying safe in spaces of high criminality and violence. These are challenges that are faced by so many across South Africa citizens and non-citizens, in a country shaped by stark inequality and escalating levels of unemployment and poverty. Yet for non-national migrant women, especially those without the correct documentation these challenges are even more stark and further compounded by xenophobia and discrimination. 

Inequalities – and the forms of violence connected to them – are intersectional. They result in an interplay between multiple power structures that produce and reproduce hierarchical distinctions, including race, gender, dis(abilities) and in this context, nationality and citizenship. This means that while all women face discrimination and violence based on gender, some women experience multiple forms of discrimination, although this is often entrenched to the point of invisibility. For the women in the group their status as poor, black, non-national and undocumented (with only one of the women holding refugee status) renders them not only marginalised, but facing multiple forms of violence on a daily basis. As much as they sought to make ends meet and to create stable lives in South Africa these high levels of violence continue to knock them back time and time again.  

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Referring to a particularly insidious form of violence the women often talked about the challenges of trying and failing to access documentation at Home Affairs. For them, documentation –and the lack of it – impacted everything from opening a file at the clinic, to securing employment, paying a deposit on a room to rent and, critically protecting them from the constant threat of detention and deportation. They spoke of the long hours and days spent in queues at Home Affairs before returning home unsuccessful. They spoke of the rudeness and corruption of security guards and officials managing the queues and the disregard, the distain and the discrimination directed at them. They spoke of the humiliation they felt. They spoke as smart, skilled, savvy women who had endured and survived much and were then forced into states of helplessness. They spoke as resourceful, determined mothers battling to provide for their families yet unable to hide their desperation and pain inflicted on them from their young children. They spoke as strong women with rich, often traumatic pasts and stories that transcended simple victimhood or resilience; stories that needed to be told, shared and listened to. Stories that were being ignored or at worse, invalidated by the very people upon whom their right to exist in the country depended.  

The significance of documents was captured in one of the stories shared by Michelle, a mother of four from the DRC. One week, Michelle told us how she had been mugged. She had been on her way to pay for a space to work in a hair salon with some money that she had been gifted to help her start earning an income for herself and children. As she was walking a group of men stopped their car, kicked her to the ground and drove off with her bag containing the start-up money, her phone and her asylum papers. In retelling this traumatic experience to the group Michelle had described her shock at the attack but most of all the panic at having lost her asylum papers. She explained,  

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“even though I couldn’t walk and everything was hurting, the next day I went back there to the place it happened. I checked for my bag in the bins and all over. I didn’t find it but I found my papers (asylum papers)…that was so lucky. If I lost those papers…” 

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Those papers – their physical presence – and their loss – represent so much. Michelle had been badly beaten, then refused help by the clinic where she sought treatment (because she was not South African) and turned away by the police when she went to report the crime. However, for her these experiences were less important than the loss of her papers. The bruises and memories of the violent attack would reduce, but the loss of her papers would have taken away a last piece of hope.  

For Michelle those papers are her way of affirming her rights in the city, a form of communication and a response to the everyday violence she and so many other migrant women endure. Within those crumpled white sheets and the few lines of black ink exists an important story  –  Michelle’s story – of how she came to be here, who she is, how she is and where she wants to go.  

Having the right papers and documentation does not solve everything; it cannot ensure you find a job, can rent a room or that you will be able to access healthcare. It doesn’t topple the intersecting and compounding layers of violence and vulnerability – nor take away previous traumas suffered and current experiences of loss. But it can offer a little sense of security, of legitimacy, of rights – and some confidence to exist in the spaces you occupy. Sometimes surviving the city, making every day work and being able to come up for air can depend on that. As another one of the women in the group once told us, when waving her asylum paper in front of me “If I can just fix this …this small, small thing…then it can be better.” 

It is these experiences and stories and so many others shared by Michelle and the women in Mwangaza Mamas that should force us to move beyond simplistic notions of victimhood and vulnerability, and instead better understand the systemic violence that perpetuates oppression and enforces lives of marginalisation and exclusion. For the Mwangaza Mamas, as women, as migrants, as non-nationals and as mothers – it was important that they not only tell their own stories but that the richness, diversity, contradictions and complications of the narratives they told defied the simple interpretations that are often sought after by those looking to understand and/or assist.  

In this way the role of spaces and methods that might allow for the sharing of layered stories and for engagement with pasts, presents and futures can be recognised. Such spaces can be about telling and sharing stories through art, through words, through silences, through actions and, through absences. Critically, these must be spaces set out, shaped and directed by those who do the telling. They must be their spaces, their agenda, and their processes – enabling what Chinua Achebe (2013) calls “a balance of stories”. For Achebe, a balance of stories is “…where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people’s accounts” (Achebe, 2013, p. 2). In this way, participatory arts-based methods like those used within the Mwangaza Mama project and currently at the Scalabrini Centre, can allow us to see the intersecting social, political, and economic issues that shape and influence everyday life and work with and respond to the need for visibility AND invisibility and the need to speak out AND to remain silent.  

Like documents, these spaces are not the only answers. They do not fix the systemic brutalities and violence of everyday life endured by migrant women across South Africa. They can’t easily offer safety, security or stable futures. But they can at least offer moments of engagement, friendships and solace as well as an understanding of how and why basic rights, including to documentation matter and why they should be at the centre of responses to migration, to gender and to gender-based violence in South Africa.  

I) The study involved partnership with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and the Sophiatown Community Psychological Services (SCPS), a local non-profit that offers various types of assistance to people living in and around the greater Johannesburg area.