‘Ghost Passports’: disembodiment, ethics of illegibility, and the negotiation of passage at the Beitbridge border of South Africa and Zimbabwe

21 April 2017

The African Centre for Migration & Society invites you to a public seminar titled ‘Ghost Passports’: disembodiment, ethics of illegibility, and the negotiation of passage at the Beitbridge border of South Africa and Zimbabwe presented by Xolani Tshabalala (Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society, Linkoping University). ‘Ghost passports’ are passports whose holders enlist the services of third parties, such as private cross-border transporters – omalayitsha, and regular bus drivers, to take to the border post to get them ‘stamped’ on their behalf. Low- and semi-skilled Zimbabwean migrants seeking work and other opportunities in South Africa must contend with a migration regime that robustly restricts their movement into the country, although they do find opportunities for precarious, often undocumented, work within the country’s mining, agriculture, hospitality, domestic, informal and other sectors. For those without work permits, a regular feature of their continued stay and work in South Africa is to regularly travel to the country’s ports of entry, such as the Beitbridge border post, to negotiate more residence days on their passports.

Without adequate financial resources or time to do this, many Zimbabweans seeking such extensions turn to the services of omalayitsha and other facilitators, who cajole immigration officers for extension stamps on ghost (or holder-less) passports for a fee. The phenomenon of ghost passports inverts the lens often associated with undocumented travel. In this case, documents get to travel without their holders.

Based on ethnographic research on the social politics of cross-border movement between South Africa and Zimbabwe, this paper argues that the passport has come to play an important role in (dis)embodied practices of make-belief that often pass as an “ethics of illegibility”. Through such practices, the passport does not just pay lip service to border enforcement requirements and official procedures related to cross-border movement, but it is also central to various kinds of negotiation, mediation, facilitation and enterprise that shape everyday experiences of movement themselves. The decoupling of holders from passports emphasises subtle way by which actors evade control not so much in insurrectionary ways, but more within the social relations of manoeuvre in a morphogenetic structure of border practices. This role of the passport demonstrates how the more people evade mechanisms of border enforcement, the more they reify them, so that the two appear to simultaneously undermine and reinforce each other, but in any case, define each other. Border practices such as the handling of ghost passports present a privileged site from which to critically analyse evolving relations of domination, dispossession and exploitation in cross-border movement and migrant labour, as well as the struggles that characterise these relations. Strategies such as disembodiment and make-belief, some of which appear in the parallel lives of the passport, offer an example of some of the practices that articulate these relations at the interface of border enforcement and everyday border crossings.


Xolani Tshabalala will shortly submit his PhD thesis focusing on the everyday experiences and social politics of cross-border movement between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Xolani’s interests mainly lie within Critical Border Studies, particularly the intersection between border practices, irregular migration and precarious labour. His other interests lie in grassroots migrant community solidarities, and their relationship to emerging and established activism from below. Xolani has previously done work on the policing of irregular migration in South Africa.

Date: Friday 21 April 2017

Time: 9.30 - 10.30

VenueACMS Seminar Room 2163, South East Wing, Second Floor, Solomon Mahlangu House, University of the Witwatersrand East Campus