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Reviewed by:
  • Migrant Women of Johannesburg: life in an in-between city by Caroline Wanjiku Kihato
  • Doreen Gordon (bio)
Caroline Wanjiku Kihato (2013) Migrant Women of Johannesburg: life in an in-between city. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato’s ethnographic account of migrant women living in Johannesburg’s inner city is a timely, relevant, and unique contribution to the wider literature on migration and urbanisation. It is unique because it explores the lives of foreign migrant women, often rendered invisible and insignificant in South Africa’s current political milieu. Focusing on the daily lives of migrant women from Cameroun, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, the author gives insight into how they negotiate everyday life and cope with a frighteningly mercurial state and the threat of xenophobic violence.

Kihato’s compact book is a powerful account of what it is like to live ‘between and betwixt’ multiple worlds, suspended between a past ‘back home’ and an imagined future elsewhere. Kihato begins with a highly personalised notion of ‘home’, locating herself as a migrant woman, a social scientist and an activist in the research process. Building on the work of feminist scholars writing on women and migration in South Africa, Kihato makes a conscious effort to portray her research respondents not as victims of an oppressive situation but as actively shaping their own daily realities and the larger urban processes in which they are embedded. While she privileges the micro-level perspective of these women’s daily lives, she is also able to contextualise them within larger material and symbolic structures of power. Her ability to move between different levels of theoretical analysis is a strong point of the book. [End Page 123]

Kihato’s methodological approach gives rise to the originality of her research. Recognising that oral techniques sometimes failed to communicate the women’s experiences effectively, the author made the bold choice of employing self-photography as a visual complement to her rich interview and archival material. She let the women’s words, concerns, and images figure prominently in her book, approaching the city ‘from below’ as she puts it. Her arguments are set out in a clear, confident and accessible style. A main argument that runs throughout the book is the need for social scientists to move beyond simplistic dichotomies–such as theory/ practice, subjective/ objective, informal/ formal, illegal/ legal, and micro/ macro dualities–that characterise our understandings of urban processes in Johannesburg and elsewhere. For Kihato, these are in constant dialogue, continually producing hybridised urban landscapes. The main weakness of the book is probably in the author’s frequent references to urban policy and planning which tend to smooth over the complexity of her work and direct her analysis along certain channels.

In the introduction, Kihato describes a key concept in the book–that of the liminal or ‘in-between’ city. For the author, the globalisation literature does not adequately capture the ambivalent reality of urban life for women migrants, who alternatively experience Johannesburg as a city of hope and despair, opportunity and lack. Borrowing from Turner’s concept of liminality in his study of Ndembu rituals of passage in northwest Zambia, the author explores the uncertain position of foreign migrant women, many of whom seem to live in limbo with an uncertain life trajectory while they await confirmation of their refugee status. For Kihato, the concept of liminality brings into sharp relief the notion of thresholds in the city–the physical, social and psychological boundaries that women navigate in their everyday lives. These boundaries, however, are fragile–as when violence breaks through domestic walls. These bordered places can be like traps, where women are unable to go back or move forward–yet they also provide a space outside of the state’s gaze, where agency and structure are in constant relationship.

In chapter two, ‘The notice: rethinking urban governance in the age of mobility’, the author explores cross-border women’s interactions with the state on the streets of Johannesburg, inviting us to reflect upon local practices of urban regulation. She focuses on the case of Hannah, a street seller who is caught by police...


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pp. 123-126
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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