Owen Sichone: Poor African migrants no less cosmopolitan than anthropologists

Anthropologists are citizens of the world because they are able to manoeuvre in and out of different cultures. African migrants display similar competencies when they are away from home. But you can even be cosmopolitan without ever having left your home, anthropologist Owen B. Sichone (University of Cape Town) told at the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology:

If we want to understand the cosmopolitanism of global justice we may find the answer not in liberal constitutions or UN conventions but in the real lives of the world’s a dollar a day multitudes.


In my view we would do better to look to remote Africa villages and congested urban slums to find the woman who greets the stranger with a tray of food and this woman who has never left home lives her cosmopolitanism by welcoming the world. One does not need to be well travelled to be a polyglot, polymath or cosmopolitan if one is plays host to the world as the women of Cape Town have done since the Mother City was constructed.

European capitalism on the other hand is uncosmopolitan:

In today’s globalising world the political philosophers have defined cosmopolitanism in various ways. Whether we see it as based on liberal notions of human dignity, (Appiah, 2005 ch6), ‘obligations of justice to non-nationals’ or merely being ‘marked by diverse cultural influences’ (Sypnowich: 56) the European capitalist who has long offered himself as the ideal type fails the test. It is not just failure to protect strangers in Europe but the whole imperial episode of colonial oppression, i.e uncosmopolitan cosmopolitanism.

Sichone points to tougher immigration laws, that are limiting the mobility of the less affluent people outside the rich countries. Modernisation has in his opinion meant sedentarisation rather than increasing mobility for most Africans. :

Whatever the advantages of apartness are (more economic than cultural), the South African system came to an end just as the rest of the world was reinventing it in new forms. Global apartheid policed by the regime of visas and passports in a manner that African migrant workers (...) would easily recognize as colonial still does the job of keeping wealth and poverty apart.


It is ironical that East Africans seem to have enjoyed greater freedom of movement during the colonial days than they do today. There was no real border at the time as East Africa was all-British territory, the same could be said for other parts of the continent.

Certain migrants, the sort that travel without passports or visas, challenge the system of global apartheid and make it possible for others who belong to the immobile 97 per cent of the global population that never leaves home, to connect with the world in ways that facilitate the transfer of resources between centres and peripheries. They sometimes impact upon the host population in dramatic and unpredictable ways that belies their small numbers, Sichone writes.

On the other hand, Cape Town (where his paper focuses on) is a quite xenophobic society. This may be the result of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid. Sichone found striking gender differences. Women are much more friendly to strangers than men. For the South African more strangers means less resources for everyone:

Xenophobia (...) is most pronounced in the world of the retrenched worker, the men who must blame their unemployability on foreigners and who see themselves in a zero sum battle for survival.
Many migrants in Cape Town would probably agree with the Congolese refugee who said, if it were not for the women, we would not make it. (...) My Tanzanian contact, Pascal referred to some of them as the ‘Xhosa mama’ who provide new arrivals with accommodation and counter the ill-treatment that makwerekwere suffer at the hands of South African men. The ‘Xhosa mama’ treats foreigners, strangers, aliens etc as fellow human beings from the beginning just as the xenophobic men are hostile to strangers even before they encounter them.

He concludes:

What we seek to do is not necessarily to denounce elite models of cosmopolitanism exemplified by the work of international scholars, global social movements or human rights activists but rather to demonstrate that for the dollar a day multitudes ultimate security lies in ubuntu.

His paper was for me one of the highlights of the conference. So I am glad that Owen Sichone gave me the permission to post his paper on antropologi.info. He welcomes comments. His email address: osichone AT humanities.uct.ac.za

>> read Xenophobia and xenophilia in South Africa. Africans migrants in Cape Town by Owen B. Sichone (90kb, pdf)


What's the point of anthropology conferences? (general summary)

David Graeber: There never was a West! Democracy as Interstitial Cosmopolitanism

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Cosmopolitanism is like respecting the ban on smoking in the public

For an Anthropology of Cosmopolitanism

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