Black Boundaries The Multiple Borderings of African Lives

When another headline reads that more bodies have drowned in the Mediterranean, the emotional labour of going through more narratives of black bodies sinking to the bottom of hope saps those left behind of their visceral energies even more. The capacity to repeatedly imagine creatures of the sea nibbling and tearing at the bodies of those primarily identified as African migrants—those recipients of silent burials and loudly proclaimed drownings; those unworthy lives; those mourned by the waves; those whose names have become anecdotal in the annals of the telling, retelling and mis-telling of the stories of mobilities denied, cut short, sunk—is finite. And to be repeatedly confronted with stories of people remembered—if at all—as, merely, bodies running into the mouth of death, is burdening.

From migration stories, too often, a question emerges: why is it that these people invariably choose the possibilities of drowning over staying alive? Is it war, some form of violence, the possibilities of a different kind of death? Places that used to be home may no longer habitable, but the sea, if the legacy of the black Atlantic echoes still, is no sanctuary either. In the moments of migration, especially forced migration, there are imagined places of sanctuary, and mobilities that take shape on the basis of these imaginations. There are, also, expectations that defy the way some of those who are yet to find reason to migrate understand boundedness. In some hegemonic understandings, there is a desirable boundedness and fixity. An ideal bordering through which claims over the inside and outside and, consequently, claims over who occupies the figure of the citizen and the migrant—the strange— are established. This imagining of boundaries, which materialises in the physical and social death of those who move precariously between borders, haunts us in the everyday. It is a spectre that hovers over those who fear, in one moment or the other, their strangeness, as it often does, begets atrophy.

Yet the desire to be mobile, the circumstances that result in these kinds of mobilities, are themselves evidence of boundedness, or of being bound to a place in ways that necessitate escape. For to choose the likelihood of drowning is to be similarly and simultaneously bound and boundless; to face floating to safety, or floating as cadaver. It is not that these are the only options but that both possibilities have become sutured to our imagination of certain places as sites of despair and others of sanctuary. When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see bodies at the bottom of the sea, floating? Do you see corpses splashed, as sensation, on multitudes whose senses constantly deaden at the sight of the desperate from elsewhere? Or do you see the stranger who threatens the comforts of repressed hauntings and painful legacies, by seeking sanctuary in the heart of empire?

What does it mean, then, to recognise the burdening of these sensations? To navigate this place, this world, as a refusal of spectacle, and as a call to the reclamation of an unbounded imagination? To think and write in these general terms is, of course, not to suggest that some people exist as unburdened or unbounded in opposition. Rather, it is to be cognisant of historically contingent kinds of burdening that continue to produce—not always in affirming ways—forms of knowing and being in the world. These kinds of productive imaginings continue then to function as ways of bordering the lives of others, who in turn internalise and reproduce these imaginings as ways of self-bordering, and the bordering of other others. This, I am certain, is nothing new in the play of empire and power. Even modes of imperialism were named indirect rule; and the purchase of these kinds of self-bordering may demand one not go further than the limits of their own imagination.

In trying to explore the contemporary issues regarding mobility, I often find myself struggling with what I term the borders of the ‘African’ imaginary. These borders are not necessarily inherently ‘African’, but characterise African existence today. On the continent and the elsewhere, constituted in most instances as the diaspora, many Africans must contend with numerous kinds of bordering through which their very embodiment of humanity is constantly under question. To then imagine fewer borders in the elsewhere—the sea, outside Africa—is to expect hospitality from a Euro-American archive that has for a while now been confronted with the ideological collapse of what the human means. It is to also be escaped, to be eluded, by the very perpetual struggles of moving and making home in other African countries.

I want to suggest, as Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, has argued, that we need to widen our imaginations. African lives are bordered both in the material, physical sense just as within the imaginaries of African existence. Particularly those imaginaries characterised or influenced by the kinds of toxic nationalisms prevalent in Europe and America today. There may be better places to start, but I shall begin with the example of the kinds of xenophobic violence that have been witnessed in South Africa. And not because South Africa presents a particularly potent case, though some might argue so, but because it is a case I am familiar with.

Africa has a legacy of borders established as instruments of repression, and the physical and material consequences of such a legacy are, inextricably, tied to questions of imagination. Here, imagination is not only about conjuring in the eye of one’s mind, which, no doubt, is important. It is, also, a confluence of the ways of knowing and being known that eventuate in our understanding of the African self and the other. The understanding of human mobility, of who seeks what, where and how, and the conceptual tools ‘bequeathed’ to us to carry out this understanding stymie the possibilities of recouping the shattered dreams of those who lie at the bottom of seas. Questions of knowing and being known, and of who is capable of knowing and being known, are a crucial part of the framing of mobility. Especially in the service of the historically produced and often deleterious bordering in which African lives, whether physically mobile or not, are constrained in the hegemonic imagination, and also become constrained in African imaginations of one other.

In May 2008, a few months before I was to relocate from Harare to Johannesburg, South Africa witnessed a violent spate of attacks, supposedly against “foreigners”. As evidence would later reveal, these attacks were also against other South Africans who looked or sounded foreign. An image that circulated and became symbolic of the attacks was of a Mozambican man, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who was burnt to death. His name, like many others’, quickly forgotten as though they belong to disposable and—to borrow from Nigerian writer, Teju Cole—unmournable bodies’. An image of “the Mozambican Man” burning to death circulated international media, and the spectacle of the deadly, everyday bordering of African lives, once again, made headlines.

The attacks in South Africa lend to the question of how South Africans—where, in this case, South African is understood as a bounded, unitary linear identity that denotes a discernible collective—know themselves and other Africans, who, in this instance, are the “foreigners”. Like other instances of the invidious relations that obtain in many parts of Africa, answering this question would demand peering through a historical lens, which unfortunately in many cases still significantly rests on an imperial narrative.

The legacies of apartheid and colonialism are expressed in these forms of violence and bordering in South Africa, as elsewhere in Africa. Otherwise, when did the imaginings of the demonymns, Zimbabwean, South African, Nigerian, ossify in the popular imaginary as necessarily, invidiously, distinct and characterised by animosity? There is, perhaps, a historically and ideologically produced bordering of the imagination about the African self that produces a hegemonic understanding of the significance of physical and imaginary borders. And within this bordering of the African imagination, African bodies are expendable. Indeed, some recognition of the reverberations of the disposability of these bodies, anchored on an understanding of exclusive identities is at function. This disposability cannot be reduced to a characterisation of “the human” found in the universalising tendencies of the conceptual tools we are often encouraged to utilise. This brand of “humanity”, as we have come to understand and live it, is obviously manufactured, hierarchized, and constantly re-engineered to affect our imaginations. It is tempting to wholly reject it, but maybe not just yet.

Repeatedly inveigled to chant that “good fences make good neighbours”, one imbibes a toxic, etic understanding of the good and the neighbourly. Embedded in our imaginations of each other, such an understanding produces not only the burning of your neighbours on the street, but also structural positions and processes that reproduce the terror of imposed imaginaries.

The language of security, of threats, of the defence of the kinds of borderings we live with is inevitable. It is how this language is deployed, and who gets to perpetually inhabit these categories of the threatening and undesirable, that finds us lighting the bodies of those who wear skins we see as different. Drowned, drowning, yet to drown—one must ask why we are comfortable inhabiting and defending categories that ultimately thrive on African death, everyday.

Here, I must turn to the kinds of globalized, socio-political and economic hierarchies that produced the kind of compradorization within which certain African political and economic modes of being function on the very forms of exclusion, which might be decried when walls are erected on the borders of the elsewhere. This is to say, in a sense, that African lives are bordered differently. Although recognising the different responsibilities we carry in reproducing these bordered imaginaries, it is also difficult to not regard a certain comprador being, especially in the bureaucratic corridors where many African lives look to, as carrying a typically huge burden of responsibility for perpetuating the conditions that entrench dispersal and desperation. It is in this space that conversations about an African passport can be located.

Sometime in 2016, the African Union launched a passport that is supposed to facilitate visa free travel for Africans throughout the continent. Many hailed the passport as heralding a borderless Africa, whilst others noted the possible challenges such a passport might face. The passport has yet to be implemented on a large scale, but I am not keen on the technical challenges it might face. What I am interested in, instead, is its ideological valence, and the possibilities it holds for different imaginings of (un)boundedness. As many face tyranny and decline, as others nurse hope for the better, the fostering of an imagination that shifts the understandings of the African self, of other Africans, of mobility and borders, is invaluable. The passport then becomes not a culmination, but a node amongst many in the imaginings of different African mobilities, and lives.

One need not, in this conversation, press too hard the point that Africans have been and continue to cross borders, whether within or outside the bounds of the dominant understandings of bordering. If borders are already being crossed for multiple reasons, what does a new document mean, and do, for how we imagine ourselves and each other? Will we be persuaded then that we should not burn or maim our neighbours because they sound, look, dress, are different? Will it incentivise us to discover each other more, to recognise, in the mould of a Pan-Africanism that is now in the past, that there may be more to gain from working on our differences and amplifying our commonalities? Maybe an African passport, as ideology, might be able to make certain statements. Yet the conditions that produce the multiple borderings of African lives are understandably a product of an intricate knot, to be untied not solely by, although not without, bureaucracy.

Amidst all the kinds of borderings lived with, one can take solace in the many Africans who have historically worked, and continue to toil in the fields of broadening our imaginations, and the narratives that ensue, the converse being also true. Through new technologies, in song, film and writing, among other ways, borders are being crossed, everyday. Unlike others set on building them, we can only hope that more walls and fences fall⎈