Political Economies of Displacement in Southern Africa

Researcher: Amanda Hammar

The project was established in 2006 and ended in 2010

How do African citizens, states and civil society actors deal with the uncertainties, intensified crises and violent conflicts on the continent, which often produce, but are also deepened by, forced displacements of various kinds? Such precarious conditions are linked to a combination of factors – external and internal, historical and contemporary, political, social, economic, cultural, environmental – affecting people and places in particular ways.

This programme focused primarily on forced displacement within Southern Africa. It investigated how and why particular displacements are generated, what new dynamics and relationships they create, and with what negative and positive transformative effects. It asked, in such times of turmoil and uncertainty, how ideas, systems and practices of rule and belonging, and of production, distribution and accumulation, are reconfigured; and how personal, social, cultural, spatial, economic and political relations alter.

In such times, new modes of inclusion and exclusion emerge, while innovative if often risky practices of survival and resistance surface. Similarly, new forms of enterprise and exchange develop, as do new divisions of labour in both social and economic domains at multiple levels. Paradoxically, even while conditions of uncertainty and displacement produce profoundly negative effects, complex dynamics of adaptation, inventiveness and even prosperity surface.

Rethinking Displacement
Much literature on the forcibly displaced is strongly policy oriented or is concerned with questions of human rights, humanitarian assistance, security, repatriation and reintegration. Through generalisations, these approaches often mask the underlying conditions that create and sustain displacement. In addition they reproduce homogenising labels, which fail to recognise the particularities of loss and suffering on the one hand, and the resourcefulness of particular communities and individuals on the other in countering such loss, especially amongst unrecorded displacees.

Acknowledging the methodological and theoretical challenges involved, this programme intended to support and produce research that steps outside the discursive boxes that more commonly frame ‘displacement’. This implied going beyond the violence and victimisation of subjected populations, exploring the varied actors and actions producing and produced by specific displacements, and paying attention to the dynamics of both old and new displacement economies marking the continent.

Material and Symbolic Economies
The programme’s attention to political economies in the plural, intended to give weight to both material and symbolic ‘economies’, and in this sense moved away from more classically derived conceptualisations of political economy in the singular, that over-emphasise the material. This means that while stressing the dynamic articulation between politics and economics, the programme additionally emphasised a cultural politics approach to displacement.

A Regional Focus
Southern Africa shares the experience of much of Africa in terms of high degrees of uncertainty and large numbers of forcibly displaced people, generated through wars, mass evictions and other forms of environmental, economic or political violence and conditions of impossibility. A regional perspective was considered essential since the matter of forced displacement necessarily has multi-layered causes and effects beyond national borders.

Amanda Hammar is a Zimbabwean. She has a BA Hons in Sociology and African and Asian Studies from the University of Sussex, an MSc in Social Policy and Planning from the London School of Economics, and a PhD in International Development Studies from Roskilde University.

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