Majoni-joni – Wayward Criminals or a Good Catch?

Labour Migrancy, Masculinity and Marriage in Rural South Eastern Zimbabwe

in African Diaspora

This article explores how intense cross-border flows of young Zimbabwean men across the border into South Africa are reworking ideas of masculinity and marriage in rural sending communities. It examines moral discourse in rural Chiredzi over these issues, exploring performances of masculinity on the part of returning male labour migrants themselves, the evaluations and agency of young women who enter into relationships with them, and the views of rural elders whose derogatory opinions of the youth of today are underpinned by romanticised versions of respectable labour migration in the past. Even during the crisis period, I argue that cross-border migrancy was about more than simply work: young people’s decisions and mobility in desperate economic times are deeply enmeshed with their sexuality and aspirations towards marriage, the future and the quest for respectable adulthood. By scrutinising polarised stereotypes of majoni-joni as either wayward criminals or a good catch, the article reveals more complex realities shaped by class, types of work and levels of education, providing a nuanced picture of the moral economies of migrancy, marriage and sexuality as these are debated and enacted in rural Chiredzi. The circulation of both stereotypes of majoni-joni matters: the derogatory view underpins elders’ efforts to control youthful sexualities, particularly those of young women, while the positive view underpins young people’s own dreams for a better future and attempts to seek out opportunities to fulfil them.


This article explores how intense cross-border flows of young Zimbabwean men across the border into South Africa are reworking ideas of masculinity and marriage in rural sending communities. It examines moral discourse in rural Chiredzi over these issues, exploring performances of masculinity on the part of returning male labour migrants themselves, the evaluations and agency of young women who enter into relationships with them, and the views of rural elders whose derogatory opinions of the youth of today are underpinned by romanticised versions of respectable labour migration in the past. Even during the crisis period, I argue that cross-border migrancy was about more than simply work: young people’s decisions and mobility in desperate economic times are deeply enmeshed with their sexuality and aspirations towards marriage, the future and the quest for respectable adulthood. By scrutinising polarised stereotypes of majoni-joni as either wayward criminals or a good catch, the article reveals more complex realities shaped by class, types of work and levels of education, providing a nuanced picture of the moral economies of migrancy, marriage and sexuality as these are debated and enacted in rural Chiredzi. The circulation of both stereotypes of majoni-joni matters: the derogatory view underpins elders’ efforts to control youthful sexualities, particularly those of young women, while the positive view underpins young people’s own dreams for a better future and attempts to seek out opportunities to fulfil them.


Two apparently contradictory stereotypes of ‘majoni-joni’ (male labour migrants)1 circulate in rural Zimbabwean villages with long histories of cross-border labour migrancy to South Africa. The first is an image of wayward criminality. Majoni-joni in this view are irresponsible criminals who create teenage pregnancies, and abandon wives and children, returning only to bring trouble, get drunk, steal and involve themselves in violent fights; they waste their money on modern gadgets rather than making sensible investments in cattle or homes. At the same time, however, young people, both male and female, aspire to cross the border and see doing so as a path to opportunities and upward social mobility. In the second stereotype the majoni-joni thus embody the desires and hopes of rural Zimbabwean youth.2 Many young rural women see majoni-joni as a ‘good catch’, consider them to be more marriageable than those who stay behind, are impressed by their displays of wealth, and attracted by the prospect of owning modern appliances and phones. For young rural men, border crossing is a means of achieving or demonstrating manhood and hence a route to social adulthood.

This article explores these two divergent stereotypes, with the aim of exploring how the moral debates within rural communities over majoni-joni relate to changing masculinities and marriage practices. Rural Chiredzi in South Eastern Zimbabwe has sent labour migrants across the border to South Africa for generations. The district is arid and its precarious rural economy cannot provide stable livelihoods based on small-scale rain-fed agriculture. It has long been considered a labour reserve, providing manpower to local Zimbabwean mining and commercial agricultural sectors, as well as being deeply tied into South African labour markets (Onselen 1980; Muzondidya 2010). In ethnic terms, Chiredzi includes Hlengwe (who trace their origins to Mozambique and South Africa) and Karanga (who came into this area as a result of colonial dislocations), and both are frequently grouped together and known as Shangaan.3 The high levels of cross-border mobility are the product partly of a shifting macro politico-economic history of colonial taxation systems and decline of communal area economies, inter-state agreements for migrant labour to South Africa’s mines and the commercial farms of the Limpopo Valley, as well as deeper pre-colonial histories of shared language and ethnicity (Muzondidya 2010: 3). In the context of the recent economic crisis, opportunities for employment contracted sharply within Zimbabwe and the decline of local work on the mines and irrigated commercial farms of the SE was particularly important in compelling young men across the border (Wolmer 2007). Indeed, the scale of outmigration and cross-border circulation reached new, unprecedented levels. Many school leavers from Chiredzi opt to go down south in search of greener pastures, seeing cross-border migration as more promising than life in Zimbabwe where there is little in the way of opportunities for youths, formal or informal.

But decisions to migrate are about more than simply economics. As the historiography of regional migrant labour has elaborated, cultural life and economic contexts are enmeshed in complex ways, such that the subjectivities of migrants themselves, the aspirations that they express and the socio-cultural life in both sending and receiving contexts reflects an entanglement of cultural and economic domains (examples from a vast literature include Harries 1994; Bozzoli and Nkotsoe 1991; Moodie 1994; Whiteside 1988; Crush et al. 1991). From the late nineteenth century, many young rural men in Southern Mozambique and Zimbabwe came to see their movement across the border as a necessary ‘rite of passage’, and step to marriage and social adulthood (Harries 1994; van Onselen 1980). As Native Commissioners observed in relation to Chiredzi’s Shangaan labour migrants, for a male Shangaan youth to become a ‘man’ he must have “rubbed shoulders with workers in South Africa”, braving the dangers of the journey and the hardships of migrant life in the township compounds.4 On return, the migrant could demonstrate the knowledge and assets that bore witness to his status and achievements, making him marriageable and fulfilling the demands of provider that are central to the status of adult masculinity and the roles of husband and father. Bozzoli and Nkotsoe (1991) show how in the mid-twentieth century, some South African women also migrated to accumulate material possessions for marriage. In recent decades, the combination of high unemployment and women’s increased entry into the labour market have posed potent challenges to male provider roles (Hunter 2005), such that “securing multiple partners has taken on exaggerated significance for men, and indeed for some women desperate to secure money or gifts” (Hunter 2005: 392). Indeed, it is clear that the strategies and views of ‘women left behind’ and not only those of migrant men, should be essential to explanations for either delayed marriage or multiple sexual partnerships (Gulbrandsen 1986). Moreover, men’s responsibility for and connection to children goes beyond the confines of a household narrowly defined and should include relationships as brothers’ sons, brothers, sons-in-law, maternal uncles, biological and social fathers, cousins, and grandfathers; including this diversity of relationships has led Townsend (1997) to criticise stereotypes of declining male responsibility.

Scholarship on Zimbabwean cross-border mobility over the recent crisis period has not yet fully explored this intersection of migrancy, masculinity and marriage. Studies of Zimbabwean outmigration have examined the political-economic, health and other crises that precipitated out-migration of new dimensions (Crush and Tevera 2010; Hammar et al. 2010; McGregor and Primorac 2010). There is a particularly rich body of work on the political economy of the South African border agrarian economy, and the cultural politics of Zimbabwean farm workers in South Africa (Rutherford 2010; Muzondidya 2010; Bolt 2010). Musoni (2012) has excavated a longer history of informal border crossing, while Worby (2010) explores the moral economy of detachment from obligations back home. Bolt (2010) is one of the few authors to look more closely at gendered rural cultural politics, providing a nuanced discussion of marriage, domestic life and contrasting modes of performing masculinity, shaped by ethnic and socio-economic stratification among Zimbabwean farm workers in South Africa.

Here I complement this growing volume of work on Zimbabwean migrants’ precarious work and differential integration in the South African context, with an exploration of the socio-cultural changes in the rural sending communities that these migrants come from and regard as home, where many have close family, land and other ties. Rural Chiredzi can provide a particularly appropriate case study due to its proximity to the South African border and its long history of labour migration, and because virtually every household has a migrant worker in South Africa. Just as work on the South African farms is strongly stratified in socio-economic terms (Bolt 2010), so moral economies and evaluations of majoni-joni in rural sending communities are powerfully shaped by the migrants’ levels of education and the type of work they have been able to secure in South Africa. I examine the ways in which labour migrancy is entangled with moral discourses and performances of sexuality, aspirations to respectable marriage, and the variety of ways that in practice young people manage intimate relationships across borders. I add a further dimension to these debates by emphasising how memories and meanings of past labour migration are drawn upon to evaluate more recent mobility, and to try to control young people and young women’s sexuality in particular.

My focus is on the moral economy of emigration, and my initial interest in the relationship between migrancy, masculinity and marriage was shaped partly by the seemingly contradictory judgments of the modes of masculinity that majoni-joni represent. But I am also interested in the ways in which these images shape the ways in which young people manage their intimate relationships in Chiredzi and the efforts of older family members to control how they do so. Young people have faced very real problems in the context of economic plunge, and their life ambitions are sharply constrained. Young men have chosen to cross the border rather than to complete their schooling, while girls have also dropped out to enter into early marriages with these men whom they believe to be better off than unemployed young men at home. In many instances, majoni-joni enter into relationships with young girls and leave these new wives under the care of their parents, often returning at very infrequent intervals. A range of problems have ensued from the subsequent misunderstandings and infidelity, including escalating divorce rates, an apparent rise in wife-battering as well as the spread of HIV-AIDS. This article discusses how marriage partners and rural authorities deal with these issues and their relationship to the difficulties of maintaining marriages across borders in times of economic decline.

This article draws on interviews carried out in July and December 2011 with family elders, village heads, male cross-border migrants and their wives in Masvingo South and Chiredzi rural.5 Informants were drawn from both Hlengwe and Karanga households. As the topics of infidelity, wife-beating and HIV-AIDS are very sensitive, they are not necessarily accessible through formal interviews. These issues are, however, debated intensively in the form of casual conversations and information sharing, rumour and gossip, which can also be revealing of broader social attitudes. For this reason, the research involved a range of informal interactions with villagers, with women in particular, when gardening or at other social gatherings. It is important to examine the stories and gossip that circulate within villages because it is the way in which stereotypes are reinforced and captures something of the hopes and fears of young people, even if it does not necessarily provide accurate information about the person being gossiped about.

Below, I begin by unpicking the components of the negative and positive stereotypes of majoni-joni more carefully, exploring how the contemptuous view that is perhaps predominant, is upheld partly through reference to a romanticised understanding of the responsibility and respectability of past generations of labour migrants. I then turn to young people’s own accounts of majoni-joni, and the practicalities of trying to maintain relationships that span the border, and how they have managed elders’ attempts at control.

Majoni-joni Masculinities and Memories of Past Labour Migration

The stereotypical view of majoni-joni that one hears most commonly in rural Chiredzi villages is the negative stereotype of criminal irresponsibility, which is articulated by elders particularly consistently. Rural elders see young male border crossers as violent immoral criminals and people who break marriages, spread HIV/AIDS (returning having contracted the disease), and abandon wives and children, creating diaspora orphans. Similarly, a survey undertaken by the Zimbabwean/South African NGO, the Solidarity Peace Trust [SPT] (2009), found that Matabeleland villagers criticised labour migrants in South Africa for failing to remit, sending too little for survival and forgetting those they had left behind, and held them responsible for a surge of violent crime when they return at Christmas: “people … often cried when relating tales of unfaithful husbands … or sons who had become criminals” (SPT 2009: 16).6 In this stereotype, the young men are criticised not simply for failing to provide for family, however, but more broadly for the irresponsible mode of masculinity that they enact, which they are held to have picked up from South African youth in the townships. Indeed, this stereotype is more usually applied to urban youth: it is familiar from the broader ‘African youth in crisis’ literature (O’Brien 1996; De Boeck and Honwana 2005) that casts young African men’s dispositions to violence and contribution to the continent’s various wars and conflicts as a reflection of the lack of opportunities to make the transition to social adulthood, to marry and set up their own homes. O’Brien (1996) epitomises this view, with this argument that African youth are a ‘lost generation’. As Jones (2009) argues, however, such bleak pessimism upholds a myth of ‘traditional’ marriage and social order that was rarely if ever fulfilled in practice, and has marked similarities to the moral panic and discourses of social breakdown articulated by colonial officials and African elders in the context of urbanisation and the supposed fragmentation of family and moral degeneracy that accompanied it.

In rural Chiredzi, Headman Mundingi articulated this predominant negative view of young majoni-joni:

They are forced to go to South Africa because of the economic situation in the country … because they do not have the necessary travel documents so they jump the border with the help of their friends. Majoni-joni are not helping at all; in fact it has led to the spread of bad characteristics. Majoni-joni are destroying the country and their families; they leave their wives with no food. They have also led to the spread of diseases, theft cases are on the increase … They come with guns and commit armed robberies. We also have problems of infidelity, the wives they leave behind ending up having boyfriends because some go for five years without coming back home.7

The majoni-joni, according to Mundingi, have assimilated all that is bad in South African society and imported it to rural Zimbabwe; they are undesirable as sons-in-law, behaving as irresponsible ‘boys’ rather than adult men. While there have undoubtedly been crimes committed by returning migrants, Headman Mundingi could cite no specific evidence of armed robberies in his area, and it is difficult to judge the extent to which his complaints of increased infidelity or sexually transmitted disease in Chiredzi is reality or simply rural gerontocratic moaning. Links between sexually transmitted diseases and migrant labour are longstanding according to some: Molefi (1996) for example, cites evidence that the first cases of syphilis and gonorrhea in Botswana were presented by migrant workers from the Kimberly diamond mines, while Hunter (2005) engages in recent controversy over migration and HIV-AIDS, casting the disease as a key part of the landscape of factors influencing more recent discourses and practices of sexuality and marriage.

What is interesting about this derogatory view of youthful border crossers today is the way in which it is underpinned in rural Chiredzi by the memories and romanticised meanings attached to labour migration in the past. Chiredzi elders who were migrant labourers themselves in their youth cast their own migration as respectable and invoke images of themselves as morally upright family men. This is particularly the case for those who worked on the mines, where wages tended to be higher than on the commercial farms of the Limpopo border region. Chiredzi’s long history of labour migration was underpinned by this distinction, cast almost in class terms, that denigrated those who worked on border farms, while elevating to high esteem the experience of mine work, particularly that secured through formal recruitment via the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA known by Africans as Wenela) which had a depot on the Sabi River that was a major hub in the main migrant labour routes to the South. Chiredzi Africans shunned working on farms when they could because it was poorly paid. In 1937 for example, the wages paid on the Witwatersrand gold mines were estimated to be three times higher than those offered in Southern Rhodesia.8 By 1945 the average wages for mine workers in Southern Rhodesia were between 10 and 15 shillings per ticket while WNLA mine recruits received slightly above £3 per individual per ticket.9 Around the same time, Transvaal farmers paid £2 per ticket10 to farm workers whilst most farmers in Southern Rhodesia paid between 10 and 15 shillings per ticket.11 Triangle Ranch in Chiredzi paid 10 shillings per month plus £1 (for food monthly) to local farm workers whilst Nyasaland migrants were paid around £1 ten shillings plus £1 for food per month.12 Migrant workers engaged by WNLA were locally known as majubheki, (derived from Johannesburg and a synonym for majoni-joni) and usually returned to Southern Rhodesia with large sums of money, bicycles, flashy tailor-made suits and other luxuries which they resold back home.13 This distinction between the two classes of labour migrant became even more pronounced during the liberation war years, when men going to work in the South African mines were transported by planes and benefited from elevated salaries and others would be smuggled in goods trains or trekked on foot (Mupfurutsa 1994).

Amos Maringire, one such Chiredzi elder who worked in the South African mines between 1979 and 1981, presented his own youthful experiences in these terms of a transition to respectable adulthood and as a counterpoint to the youthful border crossers of today. He had stopped working as a labourer within Rhodesia on the irrigated commercial sugar estates of Triangle in the lowveld because of poor wages: he wanted to marry and needed to earn more to raise the money for the bride price and then to support a family. He invoked memories of stable and well remunerated work on the South African mines, of good wages, and of significant remittances spent wisely that enabled him to provide well for his family and invest in his home.

We went to South Africa with passports using airplanes and we were assured of jobs before we went there. Unlike these young men who just go and spend most of the time without working, we earned and saved money to send back home through other people who would be going back home.14

Amos’ wife boasted about the money that she received from her husband that allowed her to take care not only of her children and immediate family, but also of a broader extended family network.15

Local women who married colonial-era migrant labourers, particularly those who earned well, also tended to cast themselves as moral, controlled and respectable. According to Mbuya vaChikaranga, a wife to a former migrant labourer I interviewed, women would wait patiently for their husbands for many years and when they did eventually come back, they exercised constraint over the money and goods their husbands had come with, and spent it wisely not just on themselves but on relatives too. They would keep the suitcases closed until the day of the return home ceremony, when the bags would be opened and remittances would be shared with others, distributed among family members. “Upon return my husband brought suitcases of different goods. We kept the suitcases closed until the day we celebrated his return. Beer was brewed to thank the ancestors for guiding him home. It was only after this that we would share the goods.”16 Infidelity was low in those days, according to this and other elders’ accounts.

Migrancy and marriage were, however, more diverse than this implies. A considerable number of men came home having married in South Africa, for example, and these South African women, who became part of the social fabric of rural Chiredzi, were upheld as urban, sophisticated and outspoken. One strand of debate also considered them immoral, especially if they drank beer or voiced their opinions in an assertive manner. Men who worked on the farms and did not remit as much as the miners were held in lower esteem, while some never came back at all. These were called zvichoni (implying that they got carried away with South African life and got ‘lost’.) Nonetheless, the image of what a responsible migrant should do, the masculinities he should enact, and what domestic respectability should look like is underpinned by reference to an oversimplified view of the well-remunerated, successful miner worker investing in a stable rural Zimbabwean home.

The Diversity of Rural Marriage Past and Present

Notwithstanding this singular image of respectable marriage and domesticity, rural marriages were and are complex in social and legal terms. Ncube et al. (1997: 15) argue that marriage in Zimbabwe is guided by the legacies of colonial era legal dualism, and plural moral and sociological norms. As historical scholarship shows, the formalisation of customary law was closely linked to moral panics over the threat to communal moral order posed by early colonial rule and African rural women’s mobility in particular (Schmidt 1992; Jeater 1993; Bozzoli and Nkotsoe 1991; Chanock 1985). Efforts to control women’s migration to town and the elevation of rural patriarchal controls including through marriage law subjected women to new forms of subordination to chiefs and fathers, undermining the assertiveness and independence that urban life offered (Bozzoli and Nkotsoe 1991).

In Zimbabwe’s rural areas, women frequently did not, and may still do not marry legally and do not have marriage certificates. While ‘traditional’ or customary marriages remain the most common form of union and some authors see them as having greater binding force than registered marriages (Dengu-Zvogbo 1994), this also hides considerable diversity in practice, partly due to the range of different ethnicities in Chiredzi and history of cross-border marriages, and partly because negotiations over lobola (bride wealth, paid by the husband to the bride’s family) are extended over time, contingent on many factors, and can be mere promises rather than an actual exchange of resources (on lobola practices in the region, see Kuper 1982; Krige and Comaroff 1981; Lestaeghe 1989; Timaeus and Graham 1989). In marriages where both families are local, family elders can retain considerable influence over the marriage and the marriage partners thereafter, particularly the wives. There has long been a range of different marriage practices in rural Chiredzi which include: kukumbira/kukumbirwa (formally asking for a hand in marriage) which is deemed preferable, kuzvarirwa (pledge marriage) and kutizira/kutiziswa (elopement marriage) which carries with it a suggestion of desperation (for an overview of urban youthful marriage practices, see Jones 2009). Moreover, migration also led to ‘marriages’ outside of lobola arrangements: Rutherford (2010) for example, has highlighted the importance of temporary ‘mapoto’ relations for farmworkers, who often also have customary wives in the communal areas (Rutherford 2001).

The discussion below explores the diverse marriage practices in rural Chiredzi, examining how young rural men and women’s aspirations to marriage and social adulthood shape cross-border mobility and intimate relationships, how rural elders try to exert control, and how women left behind by male cross-border migrants try to manage their relationships with husbands and in-laws. The desire to marry and look after families responsibly has been, and remains, a central motivation propelling young people across the border into what have become precarious and uncertain working environments.

The Allure of South Africa

The positive view of majoni-joni as the embodiment of the enhanced opportunities in South Africa as compared to the lack of prospects in Zimbabwe is partly about work. But it also encapsulates young people’s broader life aspirations, in which sexuality, marriage and family are central (for detailed studies of these connections in southern African contexts, and a long tradition of research, see Lestaeghe 1989 and more recently Constable 2009; Pauli 2009; Cole 2009). Rutherford argues that responsibility for family and dependants was a prime motivation for most of the Zimbabwean men he interviewed working on South African border farms, who felt that they had to go to South Africa because “they were house heads and were responsible to look after their family” (Rutherford 2010: 65). The role of provider for their families was central to their sense of themselves as responsible husbands and fathers. Yet Bolt’s (2010) analysis of Zimbabwean farm workers on a South African farm reveals two modes of performing masculinity, shaped by the type of work, education levels and rural origins: one is enacted through shared domesticity with a woman and aims for a middle class respectability; the second is shaped by competition among males, and involves acts of violence and having many girlfriends.

In rural Chiredzi, the returning majoni-joni I interviewed also countered the derogatory stereotype of male irresponsibility articulated by elders, stressing that they had to go and find work in South Africa because they had either recently married or had a wife and children to look after.17 Interviews with wives of migrant workers also show that a number of their husbands went to work just after they had been accepted and begun to live together, mainly because the boyfriends/husbands wanted to earn money for lobola payments and prepare for the expected baby. Fadzai met her husband, Leonard in their home village and got pregnant. When the pregnancy was five months she eloped to her boyfriend’s place. Although elopement is a longstanding practice, it is often spoken of as new, and has become prominent in recent years. The older generation prefers to cast it as a breach with tradition (Jones 2009). To make the union acceptable, the man has to formalise relations by paying lobola and other payments, but in the meantime, the woman lives with his family. Thus, Fadzai went to stay with Leonard’s parents while he went to look for a job in South Africa to raise the money for lobola, the baby’s clothes and medical services.18 The payment of lobola in fulfilment of traditional marriage rites is not a one-off payment. The man is required to customarily pay money for ‘damages’ (impregnating the girl) before he even pays the main lobola. Other payments include: the services of the go-between munyai (middleman) who links the two families, the tsvagirai kuno (token payment), the rugaba/ rusambo (payment for conjugal rights and the fertility of the girl) and it is also necessary to buy in-laws clothes and blankets. These payments are paid over time and the quest to complete a marriage and establish a home is often central to young men’s decision to cross the border, in the hope of becoming responsible adult men, and respectable husbands and fathers. If the man fails to make these payments, the marriage remains informal, with repercussions for the woman’s standing with her own parental family – if she dies, for example, her parents may refuse to attend the burial.

While migrants have shared aspirations for responsible social fatherhood, individual migrants’ capacity to gain adequately remunerated work is variable, contingent on their education, contacts and the timing of their departure. Those who left before 2000, who had more education and were able to get good jobs have managed to buy cars and cows, and build houses for themselves and their families in the rural areas and are thus held in high esteem. One such interviewed for this study – Nyika – a haulage truck driver in Cape Town, had invested significantly back in Chiredzi, in the form of a grinding mill, several residential stands in town and a smart new rural home.19 His wife, Tariro, is a teacher in Chiredzi, and she and her son can afford to spend school holidays together in South Africa, avoiding long separations that can break marriages, earning respect from neighbours and epitomising respectable, well-to-do conjugality (notwithstanding some tensions, explored below).

The dream of a respectable marriage, good job, wealth and modern accoutrements that is reinforced by the investments on return by the few is unattainable for most, and leaves many young men frustrated (cf. Hunter 2005). Formal education is less attractive to these young men than crossing the border, and they too want the solar panels, radios, DVDs and televisions that successful migrants come back with. Students drop out of secondary school education from as early as form two or three to join the trek down south, and the slim chances of a decent job in Zimbabwe have underpinned youths’ evaluation of education as being irrelevant to them.

Showing off – Gadgets, Alcohol and Fights in Majoni-joni Masculinity

The positive image of majoni-joni among youths is thus underpinned by the desirability of the successful return migrant. It is the allure of the successful migrant that attracts young girls to returning migrants who show off on their visits home – even if their displays are sham and they lack good jobs. For a young rural school girl from an unprivileged background, the returning majoni-joni are a ‘good catch’, preferable to those who are unemployed at home, and entering into a relationship with them can seem to offer a better future. Maodza, a headmaster of a local secondary school in Chiredzi related the high rate of teen pregnancies, early marriages and girls dropping out of school to such calculations, and saw the time when majoni-joni returned at Christmas, as a particular occasion when these sorts of relationships were forged.20 When majoni-joni return at Christmas, they show off (kuonererwa) – displaying how much they have accumulated during the course of the year by buying others drinks, and displaying new clothes and phones. These displays are also revealing of particular modes of enacting masculinity. The relatively well-to-do ‘respectable’ family man might display his wealth through improvements to his home, educating his family and the like, but for those who are younger, single, or who lack sufficient funds for family investments, showing off may be detached from family. They may perform their manhood through displays of strength, competition over women and violence, which is thus underpinned by class distinctions between those in stable jobs on the one hand, and those who lack education and do unskilled work on the other (cf. Bolt 2010: 378; Hunter 2005).

In rural Chiredzi, returning majoni-joni’s displays of manhood through drinking and fights are clearly not new, notwithstanding the older generation’s tendency to eclipse this from their narratives in favour of an emphasis on respectable domesticity. Returning majoni-joni are associated with heavy intake of alcohol and public fighting, sometimes with knives, locally referred to as okapi, which are also South African imports. These are flick knives, originally made in Germany and France and also used as soldier knives during World War 1. In South Africa, the National Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele recently claimed that knives had replaced guns as favoured weapons, arguing that the okapi was more popular among criminals because of its simplicity and tactical opening, and that 80% of stabbings were inflicted by an okapi.21 In Chiredzi, public fights (with or without okapi) were common even before the crisis period. The following account of one such relates to the 1990s.

Although there would be no referee, it was common for two or three fights to erupt as Christmas day came to an end. It was usually the migrants who participated because they would have spent the whole day drinking and going after girls. Most of these fights were about girls. As the young men fought the older spectators would come in to cool the tempers if the fight became too violent. Young people who usually gather to celebrate Christmas at local townships would even wait until 5 or 6pm to witness these fights and honour the winner by cheering and praising the winner’s name. Usually the person regarded as the winner would have less bruises and injuries.22

As this account makes clear, such public fights were more than simply drunken brawls – though the dividing line between a competitive display of virility, enjoyed by the public as a spectacle, and a dangerous, violent fight can be a fine one. Where okapi are used, then the likelihood of serious injury or death is very high. But the account’s emphasis on spectators’ enjoyment and cheering also reveals these fights as a celebration of masculinity. These fights have been controlled by police deployed in rural townships during the Christmas break with the specific aim of preventing them.

The fighting and drinking have contributed to the negative stereotype of majoni-joni who waste their money and fail to send support for their families. While young girls may be drawn to returning men making such displays, rural Chiredzi parents and wives complain endlessly that men tend to forget about the welfare of their families back home and stop sending money and food, attributing this neglect not only to the lack of opportunities but also to the luxurious, exciting and illicit lifestyle of South Africans.

It is common for majoni-joni to take new mapoto wives in South Africa, such that their sense of responsibility and the future may not be tied to remittances back home to family in Chiredzi. Tawanda, a 30 year old man was taken to South Africa by his brother, Nyika, who helped him get work within a month of arrival. A few months later he started co-habiting with another Zimbabwean female migrant. According to Nyika,

What I can definitely tell you is that most Zimbabwean men in South Africa will co-habit with South African women or other Zimbabwean women migrants. I actually regretted why I had taken my young brother to South Africa. When I took him and got a job at the company I work for, I agreed to stay with him for six months so that he could settle down and once he had his finances together he would look for his own accommodation. Once he had settled down and acquired his own accommodation, he forgot that he had left a wife and child back home. He started co-habiting with a Zimbabwean woman from Guruve. He would not even send money to his family. When I approached and confronted him on the matter, he told me that he no longer loved his wife and wanted to marry this woman he was now living with. When I talked to the girlfriend she told me that she knew that my brother had left a wife in Zimbabwe and she had no problem with that and being a second wife. She even told me that the only one time that my brother had sent food to his wife, she was the one who had pressed him to do so; therefore the wife was supposed to be grateful …23

The propensity for majoni-joni to take new South African wives has encouraged rural Chiredzi women to feel inferior to the stereotype of urban, sophisticated, lighter-skinned South African beauty, and to try to match this and ‘protect’ their marriages by applying cheap lightening creams.

Thus, although it is clear that remittances can play a crucial role in support of some households (Bracking and Sachikonye 2006), surveys have shown that older migrants tend to remit more than younger émigrés, who are now the majority (SPT 2009). In rural Chiredzi, majoni-joni doing seasonal piecework on South African farms earn around R800 per month (Bolt 2010). This is insufficient for significant investments, though it may allow them to buy some cheap gadgets to return with, such as solar panels, cell phones, jeans and trainers. Rural Chiredzi would appear to be more like rural Matabeleland South, where the Solidarity Peace Trust argues that only 4% of labour migrants under the age of 30 send goods or money home ‘on a regular basis – three times a year or more. Goods and money sent home do not lift families out of desperate poverty. 76% of families with members in the diaspora received no money at all in 2008 and many of the remaining 34% receive less than R100 a month … when asked to describe the impact of family members abroad only 20% spoke of remittances. Most people referred to death, disease, criminal habits, broken marriages and diaspora orphans’ (SPT 2009: 5). In Chiredzi, people claim that majoni-joni buy consumer goods in South Africa to show off when they come home, but the reality is that they often sell them again in Zimbabwe, in order to be able to afford the bus fares to return down south.24 Their displays of wealth are thus sham, no more than pretence, a sad effort to mimic the successful returning migrant worker who is respected by the community. The situation of the wives and family left at home is thus precarious, characterised by poverty, long separations, and often difficult relationships with in-laws. Male migrants’ aspirations to act as responsible providers and to set up independent households with their wives has thus become increasingly challenging to achieve.

Relations between Wives of Majoni-joni and the Extended Family

The reality for many young majoni-joni who cannot themselves support their wives and children, is that they leave them with their parents. This patri- or virilocal arrangement is only partly about the lack of money for subsistence to create an independent household. It is also about protection and control: the husband is leaving the wife with his parents to avoid infidelity.25 Such reasons were asserted by male migrants in interviews, and are also upheld in the scholarly literature on Shona marriage: according to Ncube, the wife lives with the in-laws because elders are viewed as morally upright and therefore can protect this union (Ncube et al. 1997: 10). Infidelity is a major concern among cross-border migrants and their families. Again, this is clearly not a new issue, but headmen and elders argue consistently that infidelity has worsened. Ncube claims that the economic dominance of elders in rural society means that those under their authority have little choice but to abide by the hierarchical and patriarchal moral and social values (Ncube et al. 1997:11). This can be seen partly as the legacy of the ‘patriarchal alliance’ established through the Native Adultery Punishment Act of 1916, which criminalised acts of adultery between African men and married women, blaming the women (Jeater 1993; Jochelson 1995). Although the headmen interviewed in this study were reluctant to divulge details of the infidelity cases they had handled, it is clear that this is a major issue. Below I explore attempts by migrant husbands and their families to exert control over wives, through the ways they send and monitor remittances or trying to control women’s movements directly. I also look at the wives’ responses and attempts to assert their own agency and independence.

Where migrant husbands send remittances to their parents rather than directly to their wives, then the latter obviously felt controlled by their in-laws. The wives I interviewed in rural Chiredzi commonly complained that money sent by their husbands was controlled by other members of the family, which compromised their position in the marriage. This was particularly the case for those lacking in education who were dependants of their in-laws, whereas educated women had more independence. But even where money was sent directly to the wives, acrimony and divorce was a common outcome, as in-laws accused the daughters-in-law of misusing the money or diverting it to her own relatives rather than the husbands’ kin.

One wife I spoke to – Winfilda Chibaya – claimed that her husband did not trust her with remittances, and instead sent the money directly to his brothers and other male relatives who oversaw the building of a five-roomed house at their rural home.26 She felt that she did not co-own the house because she was not included in its construction. Her in-laws, for their part, argued that she was wasteful with money, spending it on trivial things like rice and clothes, so they said they were helping her to invest her husband’s money responsibly.

In another household, the wife was educated and working herself, and the husband remitted directly to her. She described her relationship with her in-laws as ‘intense war’. Tariro is a teacher, and the incessant conflict with her husband’s sister is produced by their suspicion that she is not using the money he sends properly. Her husband is the eldest son in his family and his parents had passed away, such that he has responsibility for his siblings, but he sends money to his family via his wife. At one point, the conflicts and accusations strained their marriage to the point that he stopped remitting to his wife and her child. Tariro elaborated:

He sends the money to me. I collect it in Musina [on the South African side of the border], but there is always the suspicion that I am not using the money reasonably. At one point, when my mother-in-law got sick and passed away, my sisters-in-law told my husband that their mother had died because I had kept the money to myself so she did not receive the necessary medical attention. My husband was angry and he stopped sending me money; instead he sent the money to his younger brother. I was just lucky because I am a teacher so I could afford to look after my son.27

Tariro’s education and ability to support her son herself meant that the relationship did not break down completely over this incident.

Aside from disputes over money, tensions related to adultery or suspicion of it were heightened in migrants’ families, and although the causes of infidelity are debatable and varied, it is notable that in rural Chiredzi, blame still falls overwhelmingly on women. Most Chiredzi elders believe that it is the woman who attracts the lover and initiates the process of adultery, such as headman Makozho who castigated the “uncontrollable wives of majoni-joni who break other people’s marriages.”28 The marriages of most cross-border migrants are characterised by suspicion that the wife might find a lover in his absence, such that in-laws are constantly monitoring and attempting to control the movements of young daughters-in-law, and husbands try to catch wives out. According to Fadzai,

My movements are monitored and I cannot visit my relatives because there is always the suspicion that I may have an extramarital affair. Even my husband suspects me because most of the time when he comes he does not tell me exactly when he is coming. One day he phoned and told me that he would come on a Monday which was two days later but he arrived that afternoon. That evening he asked me whether I sleep alone in our hut or somebody (from the family) shares the hut with me. I then jokingly told him that I sleep alone and then he requested that I share the hut with his ten year old young brother.29

My interaction with young women in the village gardens revealed that most husbands have a tendency of not revealing their actual date of arrival from South Africa because they want to track the movements of their wives to the point of restricting their mobility; they also complained of controlling in-laws, which they tried to evade in various ways. For example, although women are supposed to prioritize support for their husband’s family and to reduce contact with their natal families on getting married, most do not, some visiting daily (Ncube et al. 1997:91). Yet wives complained that their in-laws tried to prevent or monitor such visits, or upheld them as lies and thus as evidence of infidelity, or of attempted infidelity when they were not.

The wives of cross-border migrants also admitted that the temptation to have an extramarital affair is very high, given that most of their husbands come back home at most twice or only once a year. Mai Beauty said that after her husband had been gone for four years without communication, she decided to take measures to avoid adultery and HIV-AIDS by joining the Johanne Masowe Apostolic church. These churches claim that their prophets can ‘see’ if you are adulterous, so for Mai Beauty, that created additional pressure not to be wayward.30

Many marriages are alleged to have failed as a result of the husbands’ cross-border migration. Another woman I spoke to, whose case of adultery and failed marriage had been with the village courts, said that her husband was typical of many who forgot them when they went to South Africa.31 She and others I interviewed did not know the exact location of their husbands in South Africa, and had never crossed the border or visited them there. Others had visited their husbands, but only infrequently, due to the inadequate accommodation in South Africa as much as the distance, as many workers live in makeshift plastic houses or other types of overcrowded rooms (Muzondidya 2010: 40). One migrant worker told me that he would never allow his wife to follow him to South Africa because of his living arrangements: “We share food and bedding in dormitories so the coming of wives will compromise the living arrangements.”32 His narrative continued to allude to one friend who ended up having sex with his wife in a toilet. In some instances, women left behind have taken the initiative to break marriages – Nyaradzo Guzha, for example, left her marital home to look for work and moved in with her brother.

According to Beauty, who was open about having had an adulterous relationship after her husband went away for four years without communication, “although I got financial support from my father in-law, I still needed a husband.”33 She claims that uncertainty drove her into adultery.

It was embarrassing to keep on staying with his relatives when I did not know if I was divorced or still married. Moreover I am young, I also need a man for sex and I could not have him because he had disappeared. I fell in love with somebody else. We had to secretly see each other for a few months before people started suspecting that I was having an extramarital affair.34

The marriage ended upon the return of the migrant worker who insisted that the woman be returned to her natal family.

Although some rural women have asserted their own needs for fulfilling sexual relationships in this manner, the costs of doing so can be considerable, as rural authorities, families and husbands continue to punish them for so doing, primarily by beating them, which is considered legitimate in such cases. During my visits it was not rare to hear people justifying husbands who beat up their wives. Women suffer ridicule and gossip. However, women are protected by ‘tradition’ in some ways, as they do not have to make payments for adultery. Where such cases came to village court, it was the male lover who was ordered to pay compensation to the husband’s lineage. According to Headman Mundingi, who echoed stereotypical traditional views about how illicit relationships caused dangerous mixing of blood (Jeater 1993: 28) and risked spreading disease, the adulterer is supposed to compensate the husband of the wife because he has violated the marriage, and tainted the husband’s blood and lineage.35 Headman Mugadzi concurred, arguing that the adulterer was supposed to pay compensation because adultery was equated to theft, and recalled cases that he had recently presided over where he had instructed the adulterer to pay two beasts to the wife’s husband.36After receiving the two cows the husband retained his wife, sold his compensation and used the money to purchase furniture.37 Women are excluded from compensation negotiations because they have no control over family assets such as cattle (Jeater 1993: 149). However if there is a child or pregnancy resulting from the adulterous relationship, the child is regarded as belonging to the husband and is supposed to be integrated into the family.

Such forms of compensation as punishment, which hold marriages together through instances of adultery, are upheld by rural elders as the traditional mode of resolution. Channock (1985) argues that the idea of divorce is foreign to Africans as yet. It is also clear that such adjudication is not holding many marriages together, or working successfully as punishment and control in practice. The same rural elders also claim that infidelity and divorce are on the rise as a result of the irresponsible sexualities of young people as these were shaped by constrained opportunities, increased ambitions of wealth and the intensification of cross-border mobility.


The intensification of cross-border flows between rural Zimbabwe and South Africa is thus intimately tied to the moral economies of sexuality and marriage in rural sending communities. Polarised stereotypes of majoni-joni matter in these debates. My argument builds on studies that explore how poverty undermines young men’s capacity to fulfil male provider roles in other parts of southern Africa (Hunter 2005; Bolt 2010; Jones 2010) and examine the agency of young women as contributing to changing marriage practices and multiple sexual partnerships (Gulbrandsen 1986). It extends this body of literature by showing how these changes are produced through contestation within rural Zimbabwean society between generations, as well as being underpinned by increased socio-economic differentiation and enhanced competition for work in South Africa over Zimbabwe’s decade of economic plunge. Enactments that echo elders’ accounts of their own past labour migration, that use border crossing as a route to respectable adulthood, male roles of family provider and upward socio-economic mobility are, however, unreachable for most. Young border crossers today who lack the skills or contacts to gain work that is well remunerated cannot invest in this model of masculinity. Rather their performances on return demonstrate their manhood through displays of fighting, excess drinking, competition for girlfriends and cheap consumer goods.

The negative stereotype of the cross-border labour migrant as the embodiment of irresponsible masculinity, associated with violence, waste, the pretence of wealth, and neglect of wives and family at home does not simply denigrate the youth of today, but is also used by rural elders in attempts to control them. Elders’ efforts at control, I argue, fall on the wives left behind more than the majoni-joni themselves, and it seems that there has been an intensification of such patriarchal attempts at control over the course of the crisis. At the same time, however, some women are assertive about their own rights, and have sought to mitigate such efforts at control, looking for work themselves, seeking out extramarital sexual relationships and leaving marriages rather than putting up with neglect. Young people continue to uphold the border crosser not as the embodiment of irresponsibility but of aspirations towards upward mobility, as they try to manage their relationships and shape their own futures.


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This research was funded by ESRC grant number RES 000 22 3795.

‘Majoni-joni’ refers literally to those who move to and from between Zimbabwe and Johannesburg – ‘joni’ – in South Africa. The term is used exclusively in reference to men, is sometimes restricted to labour migrants, but can be applied to workers on border farms and in any part of South Africa.

In this article the terms ‘youth’/‘young people’ and ‘old people’/‘elders’ are used loosely, in line with popular discourse. The former implies unmarried or recently married, while old people/elders are those upheld and talked about as such, including headmen, grandparents or parents of grown up children.

NAZ/ S1051, Native Commissioner’s Annual Reports, All Districts, 1946–1948. Although the term ‘Shangaan’ was sometimes used to refer to the Hlengwe ethnic group, the term was also a colonial invention which was adopted also by the local Shona groups as the identity for those who earned higher wages in South African mines. See also van Onselen (1980).


Seventeen in-depth interviews were conducted in rural Chiredzi in 2011. The majority of interviewees were happy to be quoted by name. Where the interviews touched on particularly sensitive issues, or the interviewees preferred to remain anonymous, I have used pseudonyms. The following four names used below are pseudonyms: Fadzai Gavhure, Winfilda Chibaya, Tariro Mabaiwa and Beauty Madzore.

This SPT report provided a riposte to a growing – sometimes celebratory – literature on remittances and the Zimbabwe crisis, by providing evidence that the majority of rural ‘sending’ households in some villages in Matabeleland South received inadequate amounts to offset acute poverty.

Interview with Headman Wilson Mundingi, Mundingi village, 78 years old, July 2011.

NAZ/S1226/8, Report by the Superintendent of B.S.A.P., Bulawayo, to Staff Officer, 11 October 1937.

NAZ/S482/509/39, Border patrol – Clandestine migration of natives to the Union, Bulawayo, 1945.


NAZ/S1226, Recruiting enquiry, Bulawayo Chronicle, 25 December, 1937.

NAZ/S2337/288/43/1, Labour and wages on the proposed Irrigation Scheme by MacDougal and Spraggen, 1924.

NAZ/S1042, Report from Nuanetsi Ranch to Secretary, Rhodesia Chamber of mines, Bulawayo, 5 September 1925.

Interview with Amos Maringire, an earlier migrant worker, approx. 60 years old, December 2011.

Interview with Amos Maringire’s wife, 53 years old, December 2011.

Interview with vaChikaranga, the widow of an earlier migrant worker, approx. early 70 year old, December 2011.

In so doing, they are articulating continuities with longstanding regional migrant labour traditions: what changed in the ‘crisis’ context, was the increasing difficulty of finding remunerative work (see Mushongah 2012 for a fine-grained study of livelihood change in southern Zimbabwe, detailing mounting problems for labour emigrants, particularly from the mid-2000s, and the imbrication of the broader economic plunge with the effects of HIV/AIDS at household level).

Interview with Fadzai Gavhure, the wife of a migrant worker, 24 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Nyika Muzivi, a migrant haulage truck driver, 35 years old, December 2011.

Interview with A. Maodza, Secondary School Headmaster, July 2011., visited 24/1/2013.

Interview with Tinashe Tichagwa, a shop owner, 32 years old, December 2011.

Interview with Nyika, a migrant haulage truck driver, 35 years old, December 2011.

Interview with Maria Manamere, sister of a migrant worker, 29 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Leonard Manamere, a migrant worker, 25 years old, December 2011.

Interview with Winfilda Chibaya, the wife of a migrant worker, 31 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Tariro Mubaiwa, teacher and wife of a migrant worker, 32 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Headman Runotora Makozho, 34 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Fadzai Gavhure, 24 years old, the wife of a migrant worker, July 2011.

Interview with Nyaradzo Guzha, 30 years old, the wife of a migrant worker, July 2011.

Interview with Beauty Madzore, the ex-wife of a migrant worker, 26 years old, July 2011.

Interview with Leonard Manamere, a migrant worker, 25 years old, December 2011.

Interview with Beauty Madzore.


Interview with Headman Mundingi.

Interview with Headman Taru Mugadzi, late 60s, December 2011.

Interview with Beauty Madzore.

African Diaspora

A Journal of Transnational Africa in a Global World



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