Mobile Urbanity, Translocal Traders and the City in Southern Africa

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    @sam2020 2 months ago
    Author: Paola Piscitelli Book: Mobile Urbanity, Translocal Traders and the City in Southern Africa * A digital book published in 2018, by Planum Publisher, 187 pages of it 150 contained the author’s narrative, pictures, and references. This book centers on Mozambique’s cross-border traders, known locally as mukheristas.* It is part of the author’s doctoral work. Thus, contains large amount of social, urbanization, and economic theories. The book’s narrative narrative is largely based on the analysis of data that was systemically gathered between 2014 - 2015. In a captivating account, the author ethnographically construct the journey of the largely described as [informal] or sometimes illegal traders, from Maputo, Mozambique, to Johannesburg, South Africa, and back to Maputo where imported goods are sold; as well as reconstruct how a livelihood choice sprung as a coping mechanism and a survival technique, became a fundamental part of the economy and the social fabric for a number of border cities in the region of southern Africa. In many cases, multiple generations in one family picked the trade, usually passed down from mothers to daughters, making the mukheristas and their [informal] profession one important pillar of the urban scene in both Mozambique and South Africa. Using the grounded theory, in four chapters, the author methodologically unpacked the complexity of the mukheristas’ practice and its link to informality, urban and transnational mobility, gender, globalization, and urban space. She particularly illustrates well how these issues affected the mukheristas’ activities and how the mukheristas’ activities affected them, leading to a cycle in which the two are continuously contributing to the process of shaping and reshaping each other. The book highlights several important issues related to the practice would likely be perfect subjects for future research and literature. One of these issues is how such a large group of women, and despite their undeniable socioeconomic impact in the southern Africa’s cities, remain for so long out of the institutional planning, especially urban planning. In a creative narrative, the author presents how the mukheristas contribute to creating new spaces in the city. Physically, by almost always moving to the margin after areas where they once lived in, become so valuable they cannot afford to live there anymore despite the fact that in most cases they were the first to live there. Socially, by explaining how new human relationships are continually formed as the mukheristas move from place to place, or even between countries for work, or move permanently to live with their families in new affordable areas. Yet, the mukheristas and their practice go unrecognized and remain out of the city planning. However, the author largely present the mukheristas as victims and overlooked, especially by urban planners. This notion to a degree contradicts the author’s emphasis that these women have the ability to and they do practice their own agency without restrictions, an agency that, according to her, usually goes unacknowledged. Accepted the idea that the mukheristas are neglected by the system, the author did not elaborate on or assessed the possibility that the mukheristas themselves chose to evade recognition. I think this is one of the important angle missing from both the research and the narrative. Could the lack of official recognition be in part attributed to the action of the mukheristas as they are practicing their agency by choosing to remain outside the official system; or could it be that the mukheristas do not trust the system, another way to practice their agency. The book’s research and the narrative creatively illustrate how the mukheristas function outside the system but empowers the formal institution, yet remain unrecognized by it. However, the reader, and arguably the mukheristas, could benefit from digging deep into who is to take the blame for this lack of recognition, its motives, its results, and what is its trajectory, otherwise the finding will remain with nominal benefits. The author acknowledges two trends that have been widely recognized by scholars of urban planning when tackling the subject of urbanization in the sub-Saharan Africa. First, in the last two decades the continent has been experiencing accelerated urbanization with Africa’s urban dwellers expected to reach one billion by 2030. The estimates of the African urban population growth understandably vary, but hovers around the one billion number, and certainly look plausible. However, treating the whole continent as a one unit and expecting that only negative outcomes would result from Africa’s urbanization deserve to be revisited. The second issue is the fact that living in a “city” does not negate the need for mobility. As if the author wanted to say residing in the city, especially at the margin, does not equal “settlement”. City residents often find themselves in a situation where they have to commute between their residential areas and other parts of the city, in many cases daily. In the context of the mukheristas, their visits to the city’s markets one after another, their movement between cities withing one country, and their transnational city operations become the norm; and in practicing their normal mobility these women not only help to keep these spaces a life, but also help to create new spaces more often leaving them behind for others to enjoy them and move-on to help create new spaces. The author makes her case of questioning if the [informality] label fits in the region of southern Africa or her research subjects. However, she does not go beyond describing the situation and presenting her objection to the definition of informality. In my opinion the argument should extend to explore all options. Particularly, what are advantages of formalizing the economic activities in Africa? Just accepting things because they are what they are is troubling. Though even successful formal economies are not problem or corruption free, I argue that the benefits of formal economy greatly outweigh those of the informal economy. Formalizing Africa’s economies might be accomplished through organic African models, that are flexible enough to be amended to fit the local situation; because Africa needed to be treated as a heterogeneous continent, not as a simple one research unit. Imported models, especially from the West, likely draw from organized societies that comply with orders, where governments are trusted to deliver on promises, governments take their share of the economy but equally give back especially in the times of need, and corporations are encouraged and rewarded for taking some social responsibilities, a far cry from the situation described in the book. The argument that African economies have the potential to benefit more if formalized could find supportive evidence in this book itself. The book, a mixture of social and urban theories and gender advocacy, goes largely without acknowledging that with so much economic activities outside of the formal economy equation, countries and the cross-border women traders themselves are destined to lose valuable incomes and benefits. For example, the mukheristas bribe their way in-and-out of each country they visit, at times paying more than the official taxes. All these payments come with no benefits to the women traders. With no record of their contribution to the national institutions they are almost certainly have to accept been excluded from some benefits. This is by no mean to minimize the role that these women play in contributing to the urbanizing southern Africa. In fact I really liked how the author described them “not simply as informal workers or cross-border traders, but urban actors who consistently contribute to support the urban infrastructure”. As they seek ways to overcome bureaucracy hoops, answer the mobility question, and conduct business transactions they forge new relations, create new spaces, and recreate the urban dwelling character in the cities where the goods are fetched as well as in the receiving cities. Evidences of this contribution extend from Johannesburg where activities of the mukheristas gave a dying hotel a much needed lifeline to new subdivisions springing across the Mozambican cities where new sprawls are built and became valuable mainly because of [informal] people like the mukheristas moved in from the city center and the neighborhoods where they could no longer afford it. The author draws a picture of reality when touching on the globalization issue. Though only highlighting the positive reflection of it on the mukheristas profession in the form of cheap goods and expanded marginal profit. While the cities where these women take their goods to sell are far from the global competition to attract foreign investors, the race to create the most appealing logo, or the efforts to build the highest tower in the world, they are not totally immune from globalization. My concern is that it is only a matter of time before the same affordable Chinese products, secondhand clothing, and mega Chinese malls that emerged in South Africa and maximized the mukheristas’ profits, it is only a matter of time before they spring up in Mozambique leaving the fate of the mukheristas’ practice as the book described it in question. Africa as a whole, is largely at the loosing end when it comes to the trade with China and the West, so how long the mukheristas’ model itself will survive in the face of the ability of the Chinese to overwhelm any place with affordable products, not just in form of wholesale warehouses but individually owned stalls and stores selling goods ranging from electronics and furniture to synthetic hair, frozen fish, and noodle soup. I would like to close by expressing my genuine appreciation to the author’s efforts to add such a fine narrative to the literature of the African urbanization, social studies, and gender fields by echoing that the cross-border women traders are ought to not only be visible as urban actors, but also to be included in urban theories as “women” rather than the gender neutral approach when it comes to urbanization in Africa, they are not just informal city dwellers, but active urban actors that contribute to create new spaces and occupy permanent spatial in the city, and fuel the local economy. Their contribution is evident by their shire numbers in southern African cities and across the continent and in the fine generations that they bring up. * The “mukheristas” are men and women involved in cross-border traffics. In this book however, the author focuses on the women “mukheristas”. The term “Mukhero” is a Portuguese-Anglo-Bantu neologism composed by particle “mu”, that marks the singular or individual in the local language, the English verb “carry”, and the Portuguese termination “O”. It comes from the corrupted English phrase “May-You-Carry this bag to the other side?” referring to the procedure at the border facilities, that is Shangana and Ronga Mozambican local languages sound precisely like “Mukhero”. Hence, the “mukheristas” are the men and women who are involved in the trade. (page 71)
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