Globalist Takeaway: “The Passport is Not for the Police”

by Jessica Shor:

Passports have long been viewed as symbols of freedom of movement. They are the keys that unlock the world’s borders for holders of these prized documents. Yet for the population of Zimbabwean migrants living in South Africa’s urban centers, passports and other forms of government-issued identification have become instruments of state control and sources of conflict over identity and autonomy.

This was the subject of Kathryn Takabvirwa’s lecture at the MacMillian Center yesterday. Takabvirwa, a Zimbabwean graduate of Yale College, studied Anthropology and African Studies during her time in New Haven. She did not receive her introduction to the relationship between documentation, state control, and self-identification, however, until she moved to South Africa.

“In the U.S., I never saw my passport outside of the airport. I used it twice a year – to get stamped in and out of the country,” Takabvirwa recalled. “But when I moved to South Africa, I was told I needed to have my passport with me at all times. It was so different.” To drive home this point, Takabvirwa asked whether any Americans in the audience had their passports with them. Only one did – a woman who had just returned from a trip abroad.

In South Africa, a passport is a symbol of state control (Creative Commons)

Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa, though, must be prepared to give authorities documentation at any time to prove that they are in the country legally. This leads to what Takabvirwa described as contestations over ownership. She recounted what one Zimbabwean woman had said in an interview: “My passport is like the money in my pocket. They both say ‘Property of the Government,’ but I wouldn’t give the government the money in my pocket. Regardless of what it says on it, the money is mine. And so is my passport.” According to Takabvirwa, migrants struggle to avoid racial profiling and assert control over their own documentation.

These issues become murkier still, given the different methods the South African government uses to identify migrants. For example, officials sometimes use the location of a person’s scar from TB vaccinations to determine their nationality: Zimbabweans received the vaccine on one arm, South Africans on the other, and Mozambicans near the elbow. As Takabvirwa put it, “this essentially makes it impossible to uphold the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. bill of rights – one can’t help but bear witness against oneself.” Other times, migrants provide officials with a bribe rather than an ID, essentially making money their new document of identification.

The theme underlying Takabvirwa’s stories of the use of documentation in South Africa, and the centerpiece of her research, was how migrants’ experiences with documentation and state control affect their self-perception. Do migrants see themselves as illegitimate citizens if they lack identification or use fake documents? Does documentation allow governments to define the details of migrants’ lives and identities, taking that ability away from the migrants themselves? What constitutes a form of identification? And most importantly: to whom do documentation and identity belong?

Jessica Shor ’13 is an anthropology major in Ezra Stiles College.