The COVID-19 pandemic presents possibilities of socio-political rupture. It has stimulated mass evacuations and remarkable efforts to emplace. Across Africa, its arrival exposes the frailty of public welfare systems, the coercive inclinations of its militaries, and an acute assault on its residents’ imagined futures.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the European Union was driving Africa’s reterritorialization: strengthening border controls, limiting movement within and out of the continent, and pressuring states to promote development at ‘home’. Out of fear that movements to cities or neighbouring countries might catalyse journeys to Europe, the goal was to suppress mobility in all forms: not just international migration, but seasonal labour migration and urbanisation. Such moves are not only about reshaping movement, but also about reshaping futures. Underlying these campaigns were affronts on African’ spatial imaginaries. An effort to convince that Africans have no future elsewhere and that movement would lead to peril.
In a world where economies are spatially concentrated, in regions where families expect and incorporate the absences of migrant workers, and for individuals whose sense of progress demands mobility, undermining mobility becomes geographic and temporal entrapment. Pressed up against the Mediterranean in late 2019, an African migrant in Tripoli told the BBC that, ‘I know if I make it to Europe, I’ll be someone tomorrow.’ Young Mozambican men in Johannesburg speak about the need to travel and work abroad if they hope to return home and marry. Patterns of movement within the continent – as elsewhere in the world – often build on bequests from previous generations. Indeed, across Southern Africa – as elsewhere on the continent – generations of families have depended on migration. Historically more than half of Lesotho’s labour force worked in South Africa. Before Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war, Burkina Faso’s economy relied heavily on sending workers there. For decades, migration represented the possibility of a step in to the modern. Where post-modern imaginations are infused with an acute awareness and orientation to ‘multiple elsewheres,’ the freedom to cross boundaries takes on even more significance. Movement for many is not just a means of survival or economic accumulation. It is a rite of passage: a means of claiming a future.
The 2015 European migration ‘crisis’ starkly exposed these intersections of mobility and realising futures. The COVID crisis adds the legitimacy of science to these disruptions. The violently enforced stay at home orders in Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana and elsewhere will be lifted, but the legacy of heightened mobility restrictions – within and among countries – may not. In the short term, politicians are suppressing critique and coercive institutions are creeping into underground economies for goods, services, and mobility. Rationing rights to life and movement are central to practices of contemporary state sovereignty. Surrendering control over these rights to armed forces and police who have often struggled with democratic accountability substantially bolsters long-term threats to individual and collective freedom. These formations will resist a return to constitutionalism and market access. Authoritarian regulations on movements and immobility – border fences, urban expulsions, and lock downs – will likely translate into enduring controls on movements. External support in the form of funds and scientific legitimacy only makes this more likely.
Those trapped by poverty, persecution or these new restrictions may become geographically sedentary, but their position in local and global social and material hierarchies will remain shaped by the circulation of goods, images and ideas. These include sub-Saharan Africa’s burgeoning and remarkably youthful population whose prospects for local employment were already deeply constrained. What is certain is that their futures will not look the same. Many across Africa will face heightened vulnerability as grandparents who cared for children are ravaged by disease and remittances dry up. Long-term strategies will be upended, as will pendular mobility and connections between movement, accumulation and status. Families and futures shaped on movement are now far less certain.
Those relying on regular migration across or within borders are not the only ones imperilled. Already the urban and rural poor depend on relatively spontaneous forms of movements and translocality to negotiate the uncertainties associated with informalisation. Without secure jobs, housing, or services in a single location, people often shift locales and social networks in an effort to avoid becoming marooned in time and space. For the young, an ability to move can represent a chance to escape patriarchal, heteronormative, or generational hierarchies and open opportunities for personal growth and profit. Hundreds of thousands are formally contained in camps from which they are now even less likely to be released into space where they can build their own lives. Mobility and translocalism has become a ready way to negotiate these uncertainties: to build connections across space that offers some chance at resilience and possibility amidst precarity.
The uncertainty of whom the virus will strike in the coming months is just one way in which futures are being stolen. The inability to move compromises people’s ability to plan, adapt, and ultimately progress. The result will not only be greater material precarity, but also existential uncertainty. Where people stop seeing the possibility of predictable futures or progress, forms of rational decision-making and political engagement will take on new meanings. Many hope for a progressive political turn as the pandemic wanes. This is possible, but people who feel robbed of futures are more likely to acquiesce to authoritarianism or support millenarianism than forge enduring, visionary solidarities.
About the author: Loren B Landau is Professor of Migration & Development, University of Oxford’s Department of International Development and Research Associate with the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand.
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