Childhood in exile: the agency of second-generation exiles seeking refuge from apartheid.

Author:De Sas Kropiwnicki, Zosa Olenka


This paper is based on a retrospective study of children who were born in exile and/or spent their formative years in exile during apartheid. It is based on 21 in-depth interviews with men and women who spent their childhoods in an average of three different countries in North America, Western Europe, the Nordic region, Eastern Europe, West Africa, and East Africa as second-generation exiles during apartheid. This article will argue that the interplay of structure and agency in the lives of second-generation exiles in the process of migration and in the transitory spaces that they occupied should be explored. Second-generation exile children devised a range of strategies in order to challenge or cope with constantly shifting contexts characterized by inequalities, social exclusion, violence, and political uncertainty.


Cet article s'appuie sur une etude retrospective d'enfants nes en exil ou qui ontpasse leurs premieres annees en exil durant Vapartheid. L'etude est basee sur 21 entrevues en profondeur avec des hommes et des femmes qui ont passe leur enfance comme des exiles de deuxieme generation au cours de Vapartheid dans une moyenne de trois pays differents en Amerique du Nord, Europe occidentale, region nordique, Europe de I'Est, Afrique de VOuest et Afrique de I'Est. Cet article fait valoir que V interaction de la structure et de Ventremise dans la vie des exiles de seconde generation en voie de migration et dans les espaces transitoires qu'ils occupaient devrait etre exploree. Les enfants exiles de deuxieme generation ont mis au point une gamme de strategies en vue de contester ou d'affronter des contextes en constante mutation, caracterise par des inegalites, Vexclusion sociale, la violence et Vincertitude politique.


Between 30,000 and 60,000 people--adults and children--went into exile during apartheid following the banning of opposition political organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC), and the initiation of the armed struggle in 1961. In addition to participating in strategic planning, military training, and armed combat, exiles established dwellings all over the world. They constructed "homes," engaged in intimate relationships, and raised children. The literature tends to focus narrowly on strategic military operations and largely ignores the politics of the everyday where individuals negotiated power dynamics and waged "strategies of resistance" (1) in their new environments in exile.

Efforts have been made to elucidate the gendered dimensions of these struggles; (2) however, children's voices have remained on the periphery of academic enquiry. The agency of children growing up in exile is poorly described. They appear as invisible actors or silent bystanders--their intentional decision-making (3) and transformative action on the structures in which they were "bounded" (4) remains unrecognized. Second-generation exiles, who were born and/or spent their formative years in exile, were described as passively being acted upon by their parents and teachers, or as "sponges" simply absorbing the dominant political ideology--effectively denying them agency and power. There is little information about the manner in which children negotiated power relationships, waged everyday acts of resistance, or shaped their environments.

Literature Review

Exile as Strategic Space

Exile tends to be defined as physical "banishment" and geographical dislocation impelled by a political regime intent on preventing social change. (5) Exile in this study has been conceptualized not in relation to geographical place but to a historically specific "condition" (6) or process (7) associated with forced estrangement from a lived or imagined home in the context of political struggles against "norms of a nation." (8)

It is increasingly argued that the exile experience cannot be reduced to "militaristic, top down and bureaucratic" (9) power relations, and "narrow military and strategic objectives," (10) as this obscures the diversity of experience and the extent to which "strategies of struggle" (11) are played out in a range of social relationships, all diffused with power, as argued by Foucault. A number of exile studies in a range of social science disciplines (such as political science, sociology, and historical studies) have tried to explore this complexity, such as in relation to gender, (12) marriage, (13) sexual relationships, (14) families, (15) social networks, (16) and "daily life in the camps." (17) However, the strategies waged by children in exile remain largely unexamined, particularly in relation to second-generation exiles.

Children and Difference

Studies that refer to second-generation exiles fail to acknowledge the diverse manner in which childhood is constructed and experienced. (18) This stems from an underlying essentialist approach to exile identity and experience .which fails to account for the complex manner in which socially constructed social divisions "intersect." (19) Clifford argues that diaspora theories need to account for racialized, classed, and gendered structures, (20) but does not mention structures pertaining to generation.

Bernstein and Manghezi provide an uncritical presentation of the voices of ANC leadership's children. (21) Apart from passing reference to children of mixed nationality at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO), (22) Morrow and colleagues do not adequately illustrate the diversity of children living in Morogoro, (23) Tanzania. Authors have provided superficial analysis of markers of difference, including birth in exile, (24) race, (25) and gender. (26) Literature referring to second-generation exiles tends to focus on the former frontier states, (27) Tanzania, (28) and the United Kingdom; (29) however, this does not elucidate the manner in which childhood was constructed or experienced elsewhere.

Children as Invisible Actors and Silent Bystanders

Said states that "exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it, or it happens to you." (30) However, he does confer an element of agency on "the exile." Clifford argues that exiles do not simply acquiesce in a linear model of integration, acculturation, and assimilation, but actively interpret, negotiate, and influence their circumstances by drawing upon "skills of survival" (31) at an individual and collective level.

The literature on children in exile tends to focus on their role as bearers of "post-memory," because they "grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth." (32) Alternatively, children are described as targets for the transmission of collective identity and cultural practices. (33) These studies refer to clashes in notions of filial duty and children's search for their roots; (34) however, they do not fully acknowledge children's agentic engagement with the exile experience. (35)

Unlike school children who intentionally joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the wake of the Soweto school boycotts in 1976 and who--according to official accounts--matured on the battleground into "youth," (36) second-generation exiles were denied agency, as epitomized in Bernstein's statement: "Children had no choice, they were either taken or left behind, but played no part in the decision." (37) Numerous accounts refer to cadres falling pregnant or bearing children in exile, yet there is little information about second-generation exiles' experiences in the exile context.

Although a number of texts refer to the services children received in exile, (38) these authors paint an uncritical picture of the lived realities of children. Children's agency, perspectives, and opinions are absent in these texts. Similarly, various texts refer to their political socialization, such as through the Young Pioneers children's club, (39) but these accounts simply describe children as passive recipients of political ideology, without discussing the children's (re) interpretation or contestation of these notions.

In the above accounts, children's agency appears to play out only in terms of "anger and resentment" towards their parents. (40) However, there is little understanding of the manner in which parenthood is constructed in exile (41) or how children navigate other significant relationships, such as with their siblings, many of whom were left behind in South Africa or in camps; (42) their grandparents, many of whom became surrogate parents; (43) their peers; and other adults often described as "aunts" and "uncles." (44) Various accounts in Ngcobo's collection of life stories describe children's struggles to develop friendships in the face of racism. (45) However, these stories paint a picture of victimization, "loss and bewilderment," (46) without acknowledging children's minor acts of resistance or what Scott described as "ordinary weapons of the weak." (47)

Bounded Agency as Intentionally

At a theoretical level, this article will refer to children's agency as "bounded." (48) Through the interplay of meanings, norms, and power, the social structure both constrains and enables human agency by affecting agents' aspirations, self-esteem, personal standards, affective states, and self-regulatory standards. (49) In everyday action and interaction with other actors, individuals both entrench and transform this social structure, (50) whose actions and development the structure in turn influences. (51)

Intentionality is central to agency. Foucault argues that one must account for the "aim of the struggle to overcome the effect of power." (52) Bandura argues that even children have the capacity to act with intentionality--exhibiting self-efficacy, forethought, and self-evaluation--on their own, by proxy through someone, or collectively with others. (53) They may draw upon individual or interpersonal resources to negotiate their positions in relationships, (54) fight against injustice, and attempt to circumvent the power of others, in what...

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