Intra-Migrant Economy: Chinese Restaurant Entrepreneurship and Zimbabwean Migrant Workers In South Africa

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Liu, Ying-Ying Tiffany




South Africa is "home" to the two largest populations of foreign nationals on the African continent. Its Chinese population numbers at least 300,000, and its Zimbabwean population, the largest outside of Zimbabwe, numbers at least one million. Many of these migrants end up working in Chinese restaurants as this is, by and large, a low-wage, low-skill, and low-barrier-to-entry sector. Based on original ethnographic research conducted in Johannesburg for fourteen months, this dissertation explores the cultural politics of diasporic entrepreneurs and migrant labourers, what I call the "intra-migrant economy," among everyday racialized insecurities in urban South Africa. I use the term "intra-migrant economy" to refer to the employment of one or more group of migrants by another group of migrants as an economic strategy outside the mainstream labour market. With little capital, Chinese restaurant owners are able to maximize profit through cheap Zimbabwean labourers, while Zimbabweans can easily obtain jobs without having proper documentation. Through exploring the structure of this sector, and the complex economic realities of and working relationships between Chinese and Zimbabwean migrants, I examine how the migrant and economic flows are negotiated and localized in South Africa's market, which also provides a concrete case study of intercultural communication.

Anthropologists have paid attention to how economic practices are intertwined and embedded in historical, political, and cultural systems. This dissertation suggests that not only are these factors intertwined but they also reinforce each other. The intra-migrant economy is thus more than a story about migrants' economic hardships; it is also a reflection on two migrant groups who are linguistically and culturally different, the social structures that create their exploitation, and how they construct informal labour relations and cope with wider forms of uncertainty in one of the most notably racialized states in history.


Cultural Anthropology




Carleton University

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