From Control to Deterrence: Assessing Border Enforcement in South Africa

Jeff Handmaker, Caroline Nalule

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Prior to 1994, South Africa was infamous for its racialized policies and seemingly limitless measures of social control and internal movement through a regime of apartheid, or racialized separation. Despite much pressure from the international community, the government was stubbornly resistant to change, reinforcing its control through police and security forces. South Africa’s racialized control over movement extended to how the state controlled migrants at its external borders. Those who have managed to cross the border and enter South Africa in an unregulated manner. From the very beginning of South Africa's democratic transition, scholars cultivated a perception, that was shared by policymakers, politicians, and the general public, of South Africa being inundated with (African) migrants that they were undesirable. As in many parts of the world, antiforeigner sentiment spawned an aggressive enforcement of the Aliens Control Act based on the general misperception that South Africa was faced with a flood of migrants, especially from neighboring countries. The South African government reinforced this perception.

In this chapter, we argue that South Africa’s policies and practices of migration and border control are consistent with Valverde’s conceptualization of everyday legal governance as largely taking the form of local enforcement, whereby “struggles around constitutional rights” need to be primarily understood in relation to “local struggles in which the legal ‘funnel’ for political and social disputes is local law.” More specifically, we show how the everyday enforcement of migration and border control is only to a very limited extent regulated by judicial oversight and is much more the product of local norms and structures of authority.

We conclude that South Africa’s efforts to deter immigrants have been a policy of arbitrary enforcement that in its highly localized enforcement of migration and border controls has been deployed. This enables us to fundamentally question whether a succession of changes to South Africa’s migration policy and enforcement have truly marked a historic break from the country’s apartheid past.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTheorizing Local Migration Law and Governance
EditorsMoritz Baumgärtel, Sara Miellet
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic) 9781009047661
ISBN (Print)9781316517840
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sep 2022


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