“Your home is the place you can’t return to, and the place where you are doesn’t appear to want you”

Johannesburg, South Africa

Post by: Dr Rebecca Walker @ University of the Witwatersrand

In November 2020 I interviewed Peter, a male counsellor working with young people in inner city Johannesburg, South Africa. Peter runs a mental health/life-skills programme for young people in the city. A number of the young people Peter works with are referred from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services within Johannesburg’s public health system.  Others meanwhile self-refer, hearing about Peter’s work from friends and community and turning up to check it out.

Peter describes his programme as built on five key concepts: food; fitness; functional emotions; friends and family and fun. Recognising that “the conditions of life in the city are a constant grind” for many children and their families Peter argues that the five concepts take children away from the unnatural clinical environment where they might normally be seen for mental health issue to a familiar space right in their own community area where they can learn to work through feelings “in a functional way”. One of the main and most popular programmes that Peter runs is boxing. Through a series of classes, the children learn exercise routines and boxing skills to build up fitness but also to learn self-defense skills – something that is much needed when growing up in a city that pulses with risk and often, violence.

A number of the children who attend Peter’s boxing programme are migrants from the surrounding Congolese, Somalian, Zimbabwean and Angola communities in Johannesburg. Some children are recent arrivals having either travelled with family or crossed into the country as independent child migrants while, others were born in South Africa and have grown up having only ever known Johannesburg as their home.

 I had arranged to interview Peter to try and understand more about, the mental health issues faced by migrant children; what the key challenges are, options for support and what Peter felt about the current state health system and its approach to mental health care for migrants and refugees. The interview was a part of the GCRF Protracted Displacement Project Edinburgh exploring the experiences of displaced people accessing appropriate healthcare for chronic mental health conditions associated with protracted displacement, conflict, and gendered violence. Aiming to interview a range of healthcare practitioners, social workers and others working with migrant organisations I had contacted Peter and asked to conduct a virtual interview with him[1] in order to better understand the intersections of mental health and migration in Johannesburg.

“Active Resistance”

As a city that is still regarded as ‘Egoli’- the City of Gold – Johannesburg draws migrants from across the continent seeking work opportunities and better livelihoods for themselves and their families. However, as a city that entangles opportunity with struggle and, hope with despair for many migrants the battle to make ends meet, stay safe and keep healthy is continuous and exhausting. This exhaustion is matched by a failure by the state to provide support and protection to migrant communities. In fact, the entrenched xenophobic attitudes towards ‘foreigners’ encountered on the streets, in the work place, in schools and in healthcare facilities are rooted in state policies and systematic forms of exclusion.

Many of the challenges that migrants face in South Africa have been documented and reported across the media, academic work and, in NGO reports often framed in terms of resilience. Migrants are seen to struggle and to survive – they keep on pushing forward often against all odds and thus are seen to adapt to and surmount adversity through their resilience.

However, of the respondents that I spoke with the term resilience did not accurately reflect what they encountered or understood from their work with migrants. In fact, Peter was quick to argue that the very concept of resilience should be abandoned as he stated: “the behaviour of the kids is a form of protest – active resistance not resilience.” The difference between “active resistance” and resilience was important to Peter – the former better capturing the shorter-term goals of migrant youth to physically and mentally survive and resist the city while breaking life into “something measurable to meet unmet needs to find a way to belong.”

Peter developed this argument through the example of how migrant children engage with social media as a way of coping, creating an “alternative existence” that helped them feel they belonged. To illustrate this, he described how some of the Congolese boys create profiles online in which they do not say they are from the DRC or South Africa but rather claim they are from America:

It’s an interesting thing because if you are from South Africa and you are Congolese this is not really your home, so what they say is that they’re American, it’s almost like there is an aspiration to not being African…Their identity formation is to be quite heavily impacted by the lack of home which is the Congo because your home is the place you can’t return to, and the place where you are doesn’t appear to want you.

 This point challenges much of what is written about migrants in the context of home and belonging as based on the idea of wanting: wanting to create a home, wanting to belong, wanting to be accepted, be acknowledged, be supported. And yet for Peter young Congolese men understood belonging to mean “not being African” – it meant not wanting to be located in South Africa, or not wanting to return to the Congo or not wanting to be seen through the lenses of the countries you have traversed and set up home. Belonging for these boys means somewhere else. Belonging is an aspiration to elsewhere, whether that is presented in a virtual, online world or in reality.

In a similar way, an interview with a social worker with an International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) in Johannesburg raised similar issues. Jenny, who had been working with the INGO for over a year spoke about the differences between meeting the needs of migrants who had recently arrived in South Africa and those who came looking for help after being in the country for “too long.” She described how it was easier to respond to the short-term needs of recent arrivals who needed advice on documentation, a place in a shelter and food vouchers. But for those who had stayed years only to find that the challenges of existing in a largely hostile city do not get easier responding was much harder:

…they have realized they will never belong and they don’t think they want to. Some come asking to go home. Others just want the security of documents and a job. They are tired of waiting and being in this limbo state. They would rather be somewhere else.

Although both the boys Peter works with and the long-term migrants Jenny speaks of express a similar desire to be elsewhere this does not necessarily mean they did not belong anywhere.

They may have created their own connections, their own spaces where they feel safe, found their own ways of getting by. Perhaps, belonging is not even an issue that is significant to them. Peter for example pointed out that for the boys’ safety is not something that concretely exists – the city is not safe, the schools are often not safe, the home is not always safe. So, the aim then is to identify and access an internal sense of safety while learning to “balance expectation against real experiences.

Maybe balance then is more significant than belonging? As Peter points out, “they (the young people) must learn to live with ambiguity.” While this ambiguity may not make life any easier and, may not lesson the challenges of getting by in the city it is central to the strategies of “active resistance” as a way of keeping healthy – physically and mentally – when belonging – when the home you cannot return to and the country that does not want you – is rendered out of reach.

[1] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions fieldwork could not be carried out in person in South Africa.