The influence of place and space on the identity construction of female migrants within the South African context with reference to Zebra crossing (2013) by Meg Vandermerwe

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Migration from African countries to South Africa is on the increase as a result of, among other things, conflict between ethnic groups, natural disasters, poverty, disease, famine and unemployment. Although women form an important component of the statistics on migrant numbers, the unique problems of adjustment experienced by women as a result of the migration process have until recently been ignored in migrant studies not only in South Africa, but also worldwide. To understand the complex layers of gender in migratory conditions, migration needs to be studied analytically and empirically in a much broader context than is currently the case. Apart from sociological and economic studies on the subject, migrant literature texts can make an important contribution because literary texts reflect on existential challenges in multicultural and multilingual contexts within a particular space. Against the background of existing sociological and economic literature on the subject, this article aims to indicate how a literary text can eminently fulfil this function.

To this end, Zebra crossing, a migrant literary novel by Meg Vandermerwe, which was published in 2013, was chosen as the starting point. As a non-migrant writer, Vandermerwe gives voice to migrant women who, for a variety of reasons, do not have the ability to communicate their own experiences. The novel is particularly successful in highlighting the unique challenges closely linked to the place and space migrant women are confronted with in South Africa. These challenges correlate directly with their adaptability (or otherwise) in host countries because place and space are inextricably linked to the formulation of both a cultural and a personal identity construction. 

Place identity, defined by Prohansky, Fabian and Kaminoff (1983) as a potpourri of memories, conceptions, interpretations, ideas, and related feelings within a particular space, forms the cognitive database underlying the formation of a group’s cultural identity construction. This cognitive database is created through exposure to a particular value system and behavioural patterns, as developed and embedded within a particular cultural orientation within a geographical space. Place and space in terms of identity formulation are therefore nothing but social categories with a shared social meaning as a result of the interaction between members of a group.

Behavioural patterns resulting from a collective identity are consciously maintained and sanctioned by means of power relationships. Power manifests on the one hand in clearly discernible ways through statutory laws and penalties. On the other hand it is enforced through a conditioning process and maintained by generally accepted social practices, underpinned by a particular cultural, religious or ideological orientation. Bourdieu (1991) illustrates how a particular cultural orientation has the power to structure, condition and enforce certain practices in everyday life through subjective experiences he calls habitus. This concept encompasses the subjective experiences of an individual when external power structures are internalised and, without questioning, become part of the individual’s frame of reference in an almost natural way. This includes discrimination due to racism, sexism, gender, and physical abnormalities that marginalise people.

From the definition of Prohansky et al., place identity, comprising two interdependent but distinct concepts, namely place attachment and place awareness (a sense of a place), develops. Through place attachment an individual develops a deeply rooted emotional connection with a place, “a sense of belonging”. This is underpinned and affirmed by a specific value system and/or underlying ideology that is accepted, maintained and lived by the specific group occupying the geographical space without questioning.

Place awareness is related to an individual’s experience(s) in a particular place or space. These experiences, which also include emotional connections, are directly linked to the awareness of a place within a particular cultural, historical and spatial context. It also includes constructed socially and culturally shared meanings. Place, therefore, is not only a physical space within which interaction among members of a particular cultural group takes place, but also the manifestation of personal and collective identity formation, a way in which the individual experiences and understands the world in which she/he lives.

Place awareness really comes to the fore only when the living space or cultural identity of the group to which the individual belongs is challenged for some reason. Migrants who have exchanged the familiar space of their homeland for another, foreign or conflicting, cultural orientation in the host country become acutely aware of the new space or place. Where place awareness in the first phase of a personal identity construction is related to security and a general sense of well-being, the migrant experiences spaces and places in the host country as hostile and unaccommodating. This correlates directly with views of the “self” and the so-called “other”. The combination of these two processes results in a sense of being different, an acknowledgment of “the other”, and the recognition of one’s own otherness and consequent mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, which in turn are maintained by public policy and the everyday actions of residents.

Private and public spaces are social constructs that conceptualise different domains of daily life. Social constructs are always intertwined with concepts such as power, subjectivity, gender, class, cultural orientation, and individual preferences and perceptions. Therefore, a space can never only be public or private, but overlaps on a variety of levels. Both migrants and the indigenous population are confronted with other cultural orientations that are foreign territory to both groups. Adjustments to an already formed identity construct and personal conditions must be negotiated anew within a different social context, institutional frameworks and relationships, not only at the personal level, but also within the broader public context in host countries. Migrants who fail to make the necessary adjustments to an already formed personal identity construct organise themselves into separate groups on the fringes of the community. Resistance against these islands of otherness in host countries makes assimilation of migrants into indigenous communities virtually impossible and indigenous citizens respond with suspicion, fear or violence. The way this conflict is handled has far-reaching implications for the host country.

Female migrants entering public spaces are often victims of discrimination, stereotyping or insults by not only members of the dominant group in the host country, but also other male migrants. In many cases the intimate interior space of a private home does not provide a safe haven either, as it is often the place where a female migrant is exposed to gender discrimination and/or domestic violence.

Memories and imagined spaces play an important role in cases where migrants are unable to adapt to host countries. Experience and interpretation of circumstances in the host country are interlinked with past events. For migrants in distressed situations, place awareness includes a return to the place(s) with which a particular emotional bond was formed, in an attempt to find new meanings. 

Zebra crossing by Meg Vandermerwe specifically highlights the vulnerability of female migrants in host countries when they cannot escape culture-oriented discrimination. Her “place” in this sense spans all the different spheres of social categorisation in the country of origin as well as in the host country that influence or has influenced her personal identity construction. Therefore, women migrants rarely succeed in adjusting to an already established identity construct in the host country. Additional problems such as the challenges of clashing cultures, poverty, social isolation, limited rights to negotiate problems in the workplace, poor access to health services, domestic violence, hate speech, xenophobia, insults, and various forms of discrimination leave her helpless, stripped of human dignity and unwelcome in a country in which she has placed her hope for better living conditions.

What becomes clear from the article is that the effect of migration penetrates and influences the intimate dimensions of women migrants’ personal lives. These include emotions, feelings, strategies of self-presentation, social interaction and the ability to determine their own destiny. The unique challenges and associated problems such as, among other things, sexism, racism and the legacy of colonialism that she must face due to migration can no longer be overlooked in migrant studies. The article also indicates that the cross-pollination between a literary text and different subject disciplines not only leads to a better interpretation of the literary text, but also makes a significant contribution to the relevant discipline(s). 

Keywords: collective identity; gender; ideology; migrant literature; migrant women; migration; personal identity; place attachment; place awareness; power relations


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Die invloed van plek en ruimte op die identiteitskonstruksie van vrouemigrante binne die Suid-Afrikaanse konteks na aanleiding van Zebra crossing (2013) deur Meg Vandermerwe

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