Tragic and Heroic Moments in the Lives of Forced Migrants: Memories of Political Asylum-Seekers in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Author:Pineteh, Ernest A.


This article examines the memories of a group of Cameroonian asylum-seekers in South Africa, analyzing personal accounts of memories of fear, suffering, and pain as well as resilience and heroism during their forced migration. The article argues that the legitimacy of applications for asylum often depends on accurate and consistent memories of specific life-threatening episodes at home and during migration. Drawing on theoretical conceptions such as construction of memory, autobiographical memory, and politics of storytelling, this article teases out how personal memories of asylum-seekers provide a discursive space to access and understand the asymmetries of seeking political asylum in post-apartheid South Africa.


Cet article etudie les souvenirs d'un groupe de chercheurs d'asile d'origine camerounaise en Afrique du Sud. Il analyse leurs temoignages personnels de souvenirs associes a la peur, la souffrance et la douleur, ainsi que ceux de la perseverance et de l'heroisme lors de leur migration forcee. L'article maintient que la legitimite des demandes d'asile depend souvent des souvenirs precis et coherents de situations specifiques impliquant un danger de mort qu'ils ont subies dans leurs pays ainsi que lors de la migration. En faisant appel a des conceptions theoriques telles que la construction de la memoire, la memoire autobiographique, et la politique des recits narratifs, l'article fait ressortir la facon dont les souvenirs personnels des chercheurs d'asile produisent un espace discursif pour acceder et comprendre la dimension asymetrique inherente a la recherche d'un asile politique en Afrique du Sud post-apartheid.


In the asylum application process, "the decisions [to grant political asylum] very often rest on a judgement whether or not the claimants and their story are credible." (1) This entails "the ability to recall specific memories" in a narrative that is deemed consistent and coherent by the asylum determination officers. (2) Although experiences of forced migrants are those of fear, pain, and suffering, which they would rather forget than remember, the inclusion of specific details of key moments in their lives is often construed as a marker of credibility. (3) This approach to asylum narratives lends itself to "the question of the relationship between 'facts' and emplotment, truth and representation." (4)

In the case of South Africa, the legitimacy of claims for political asylum resides not only in the techniques of narrative construction but also in the recollection of life-threatening experiences at home and during the journey to exile. (5) However, because of the inadequacy of resources to manage the increasing influx of asylum-seekers, and the prescripts of the South African immigration policies such as the infamous Aliens Control Amendment Act of 1995 or Refugees Act of 1998, the term illegal immigrants remains the dominant discourse and often is used as a pretext to reject applications of bona fide asylum-seekers. (6) Certain immigration policies have been amended to respond to the changing characteristics of global human mobility, but stories of asylum-seekers from war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia are often privileged by the refugee determination officials because of South African media coverage of devastating wars in these countries. (7) For Cameroonians, this process entails remembering moments of immeasurable suffering, fear, and pain, as well as feats of heroism in a country rated by South Africa as politically stable and therefore a non-refugee-producing country. (8)

To understand the subjectivity of Cameroonians' exilic experiences, we need to examine how these experiences are recalled and how Cameroonian asylum-seekers "build themselves into the world by creating meaning [and] by fashioning out of [traumatic images], a sense of what the world is all about." (9) In this article, we discuss how Cameroonian applicants for asylum in South Africa construct memories of personal and collective experiences in a tragic sense and/or as a process of self-styling, to enhance the credibility and reliability of their applications. (10) The article uses phraseology associated with conventional principles of tragedy, but in this case we use the term loosely as a prism through which to make meanings from Cameroonian memories of physical and psychological pain encountered during the process of forced migration.

This article argues that the re-storying of forced migrant experiences is primarily the remembering or forgetting of personal episodes of displacement, whereby the narrators represent themselves as victims at home and heroes during flight to exile. (11) This process of memory work establishes a relationship between the context and individual meanings of the self in the diaspora and of intricacies of political asylum in the South African context. Here, the self can only be understood in relation to the Other, in this case the political or social context of the asylee. (12) The article therefore attempts to connect the dots between personal memories and social realities, showing how Cameroonian memories "function to construct the social reality that constitutes the lived world of social actors." (13)

A Brief Conceptual Framework

To understand how Cameroonian asylum claimants remember tragic and heroic experiences of displacement, this article uses conceptual lenses such as the process of memory work, autobiographical memory, and the politics of storytelling. For example, recalling exilic experiences is in fact a gradual process of memory work. (14) It is a "journey into the memory and imagination that negotiates between old and new, past and present, self and other, safety and danger." (15) The urgency to engage in memory work is the result of a major rupture in the life of an individual that needs to be remembered or forgotten. (16) When an experience is remembered, "it assumes the form of narrative of the past that charts the trajectory of how one's self came to be." (17) Thus, memories of asylum-seekers are journeys into their past, which help us to make sense of their present social conditions in exile and predict their futures.

The meanings of our lives are often buried in our memories, and the transformation of memories into narrative gives us a sense of place and time. (18) The "representation of past examples of participation in life events in a life story format, provides continuities of that participation across time and place." (19) These memories "are practices of formation where systems of power are constructed, resisted, subverted and mediated in, and through linguistic agency." (20) In this article, the memories of Cameroonian asylum-seekers "help to secure the identities that enable [them] to navigate, legitimate or resist the present order of things." (21) This means that they are able to use the process of remembering to define who they have been and who they would like to be in the future, and to find comfort during present struggles. (22)

The memories of Cameroonian asylum-seekers detailed here should be read as self-orderings of personal experiences. In recollecting experiences of displacement, narratives of asylum-seekers are indeed autobiographical memories of home, flight, and exile, which entail "an explicit 'memory' of an event [or events] that occurred in a specific place in one's personal past." (23) The concept of autobiographical memory is about making sense of personal experiences that are spatially and temporally based, and therefore "the function of human autobiographical memory is not to remember exact/ accurate memories of events," as these can be "subject to distortions as well as failure." (24) Although the determination of asylum leans towards accuracy, consistency, and credibility, Cameroonian asylum-seekers' memories are stories of displacement that are always constructed and reconstructed by individual narrators. (25) Here, Cameroonian recollections of historical and socio-political events at home and in exile as well as the imaging of the self as a hero and a victim in these events articulate a "relationship between individual consciousness and the social world." (26)

Since memory work and autobiographical memory are framed around the way individuals remember and retell episodes of their social experiences, this article has also drawn on the politics of storytelling as a conceptual frame. Human beings make meanings of their worlds through storytelling. (27) The stories that human beings tell about their experiences involve "an ongoing struggle to negotiate, reconcile, balance or mediate ... antithetical potentialities of being." (28) This means human lives are storied lives, in that "telling the story of the life we have lived thoroughly and deeply shows us the powerful presence of archetypes, those common elements of being human that others, throughout time and across all cultures, have also experienced in their lives." (29) Cameroonian asylum-seekers' memories are therefore stories that provide agency in the process of seeking asylum, a sense of selfhood, and a way for us to make sense of their social existence in a country like South Africa, fraught with anti-foreigner sentiments. (30)

The Challenge of Obtaining Political Asylum in Post-Apartheid South Africa

One of the many challenges the South African government faces is managing the increasing number of asylum-seekers and economic migrants entering the country. (31) The government's inability to regulate the entry of displaced persons as well as to address critical social problems such as unemployment, poverty, and crime has resulted in powerful anti-foreigner sentiments. These sentiments have been expressed in several gruesome attacks aimed at exorcising particularly African migrants from South Africa. (32) Although the xenophobic attacks on Africans are criminalized, this prevalent culture is arguably "the...

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