“On se Débrouille” : Congolese migrants’ search for survival and success in Muizenberg, Cape Town

Date: February 6, 2014
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Situated in a Congolese transnational ‘community’ in Muizenberg, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, the thesis focuses on the lives of three middle class Congolese male informants. Their contingent acquaintance with a South African white Christian man gave them access to valuable social capital; social capital that positioned them advantageously to date and eventually marry European white women and thereby further their culturally-defmed economic/material career goals. To demonstrate the socio-economic trajectory of the three, I compare their social positioning with other Congolese men and women resident in Muizenberg. I show how these men and women, like my three main informants, activate their Congolese ‘habitus’ to secure access to social networks and the social capital therein. The difference between these Congolese men and women and my three main informants, however, is their strategic use of contingency, and the instrumental capitalisation of their cultural capital through the creation of a client-patron relationship with a South African in order to further their life goals. The thesis reorientates the migration literature on African migration from a focus on the implications of migrant remittances to the home country, to a focus on individual migrants’ agency in the host country and the cultural influence of the society of origin. While I acknowledge that my research participants are part of a transnational social field, the focus on one locality and the relatively longitudinal approach of the study grounds the analysis both in the day-to-day lives of these migrants and in their migrant careers in and beyond Muizenberg and South Africa. With this orientation, the thesis is able to reveal that some Congolese migrants are comfortable to create a holding place for themselves in South Africa, while others – ever aware of the Congolese ambition to travel overseas – migrate beyond South African borders. For these Congolese migrants, South Africa is then a transit space. Fundamentally, all of my research participants give expression to Mobutu’s edict of on se debrouille (literally, ‘one fends for oneself), but some are more able to achieve the ultimate aspiration of settling in the First World -lola.


Publisher: Rhodes University
Year of Publication: 2012

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