Being seen

All of the Friday-morning sessions that a colleague and I run in inner-city Johannesburg are tough. They are tough not because of the participants themselves or what we are doing together, but because of the stories told over the three hours; stories that testify to the abuse and discrimination migrant women, and particularly migrant mothers experience on a daily basis in Johannesburg.

While many of the women have endured horrific experiences in their home countries and on their journeys to South Africa it is often what is going on here, in the inner-city – in the clinics and hospitals, the queues at Home Affairs and on the streets – that is the most shocking. Shocking, not because we haven’t heard these stories before, but shocking because they continue and get worse – and because migrant mothers in particular have to find ways to negotiate, to strategise and to fight against multiple forms of structural and direct violence.


Daily the women have to work out where they can be seen and where they need to stay invisible, where they can make demands and hope for assistance, and where they know they will be told they are not entitled or deserving. And quite often that comes down to the attitude of one or a few individuals on any particular day. Whether it is a Home Affairs official that helps you renew your Asylum papers or whether he or she decides to tell you that “there is no more Asylum in South Africa” and that you will be deported; whether a doctor decides to give you a proper check up or whether they refuse to make eye contact and tell you “I have no time for all of you foreigners why can’t you go back to your own country?” and, whether the police checking your papers on the street decide that it is legitimate and allow you to go, or screw it up and ask you “what is this on the photograph – is it you or is it a monster?” (as experienced by the women in our group).

It is normally the very people that the women turn to for assistance that treat them with disrespect and abuse, preventing them from making their everyday lives work and from being seen.

Last Friday in the group the women began a discussion about accessing healthcare and dealing with doctors. Miriam mentioned how she had tried to see a doctor for nose bleeds she was experiencing. She described, “he (the doctor) sat and didn’t look at me once…he asked me questions but he never even looked at me. He was looking at his phone. He didn’t check me and he spoke in Zulu. I don’t know Zulu”. She compared this to a doctor in a private practice that she had eventually seen (facilitated by the NGO where she gets support). “That doctor treated me like a human being” she said, “he checked everything”. She went on to say “It didn’t even matter if the medication didn’t work, just because he looked at me and saw me and spoke nicely to me asking me all about my life I felt better. In the taxi on the way home I felt better and I hadn’t even taken any medication”.

A few weeks earlier Precious had described another healthcare encounter when she had gone to Baragwanath hospital (in Soweto) to pick up an appointment card to see a psychiatrist. The appointment had been arranged and all she needed was the card so that she knew when to attend. On arrival she had asked a nurse where she could collect the card. The nurse has then turned to her and said to her (as recounted by Precious), “You need to see a psychiatrist? For what? Trauma? You don’t have trauma – I have seen trauma before. You are not traumatised. If you have problems with your husband go sort it out, don’t bring it here, we are not for you people to bring your problems”. What followed was an onslaught of abuse from the nurse leaving Precious in tears. Another nurse tried to apologise to Patience and a security guard tried to intervene.

These stories weave into the overarching narrative of daily discrimination and abuse faced by non-nationals in South Africa. Many experiences of being denied access to healthcare, or charged where healthcare is free (at Primary level), or abused during treatment saturate an already charged context of extreme inequality, disparities and anger. For migrant mothers the stories are particularly bad – Mary described how her newborn baby was “thrown” onto her bed after birth and how the nurses refused to assist with filling in the birth certificate, leaving the child undocumented. She also described how her friend from the DRC lost a child after the nurses said they were too busy to deliver, and so when she gave birth alone  the baby fell onto the floor and died.

Such experiences blister the surface of the realities of surviving in the city – and though individuals manage, they get on and they move on – these experiences often shape what it is to be a migrant, and to be a mother in Johannesburg. Yet, at the same time they do not define who the women are and, are not the only realities they experience. Their lives, like any lives are complex, multifaceted and multilayered. But through sharing stories about being migrant mothers in the city these are the stories and realities that are narrated and described every, single week in our group. Stories and realities about (not) being seen.

While these are not my stories through working with these women, I have become a part of telling them. Whether it is in a small group on a Friday morning, in their counselling sessions, or by the doctors who treat them and the Home Affairs officials who decide whether they can stay (or how difficult to make staying) these spaces and moments of being seen matter. The women ask to be seen in the ways that are available to them and they ask for the spaces where they will be listened to. And of course, more than this, through being seen they ask for things to change and for something definite – something more than hope, than of sharing stories and of nice words – to be offered to them. And that is the most challenging part.








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