About Author

Thando Sipuye is an executive member of the Africentrik Study Group at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He is currently a History Masters Candidate at the Govan Mbeki Research & Development Centre under the South African Research Chairs Initiative at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes in his personal capacity.

Reminiscence Of Apartheid: Illegal Migrants, Foreigners & The Dompass

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PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA FEBRUARY 24: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): Protesters sing and chant during the Foreign March where South Africans from different areas protested against illegal immigrants on February 24, 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to control the situation. (Photo by Thapelo Maphakela/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The death of Elvis Nyathi in Diepsloot two weeks ago is not only a tragedy of a people captured and confined in an Orwellian type of ‘animal farm’, but, in fact, a consequence of the dominance and persistence of racist colonialist concepts and the ignorant consumption of eurocentric definitions of reality and phenomena.

Nyathi, like other “foreigners” before him, was burnt to death by vigilante delinquents who believed that he was an “illegal immigrant” who had no right to life and human dignity. In 2022, the innocent man was barbarically bludgeoned and burnt to death on the streets. Not even a dog is killed like that.

The problematic and misguided notion of “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants”, at least in relation to Afrikan people in Afrika, is rooted in coloniality and racist stereotypes developed by the system of Herrenvolkism (white supremacy).

Reference to any Afrikan person in Afrika as an “illegal” exposes, not only the incompleteness of the Pan-Afrikanist mission and agenda of the liberation struggle in Afrika, but also the persisting weakness and inefficiencies of institutions such as the African Union (AU), SADC, ECOWAS and the like.

It’s a historical fact that the artificial borders that currently exist on the continent, with the laws, legislations and enforcement agencies that ensure their perpetuation, are a consequence of the racist colonial project crystalized at the Berlin Conference in 1886.

Needless to say, the colonial project itself in Afrika predates 1886; Otto von Bismarck, and his contemporaries like King Leopold, merely took the draconian racist project a step further with the annexation, colonization and settlerization of the  entire continent and complete subjugation and domination of the entire Black race in Afrika.

This process necessitated the institution and erection of imaginary borders, with each specific border(s) designated for a particular European colonizer, in order to effectively control the native people in those conquered territories.

In these occupied and conquered Afrikan territories, the racist settler regimes then instituted and enforced their varied, but related, colonial ‘legal’ and judicial systems – and also deployed their various militaries – to control and terrorize their defeated, colonized and dispossessed Black subjects.

For example, besides South Africa, the colonialist also created Pass Laws in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique. The method and intent was all the same: total control of Black people in the white towns and cities.

Under apartheid, a Black person from the so-called Bantustans like Boputhatwana, Venda, Zululand, Ciskie or Transkie was regarded as a foreigner in white South Africa. These Bantustans later served as ‘labour reserves’ for white settlers; from here they received a sure supply of slave labour.

These Black people were forced to become workers through the creation of a migrant labour system by Cecil John Rhodes and the British crown.

Soon thereafter, a so-called ‘mineral revolution’ emerged after the imperialistic thievery of gold and diamonds in Galeshewe, and it became compulsory by law for all Black people in Gauteng to carry ‘dompasses’ or ‘passbooks’. So emerged the infamous Influx Control and Pass Laws designed and legislated to control and restrict the movement of Afrikans in the white cities.

Any Black person without this ‘dompass’ or ‘passbook’ was considered an “illegal migrant” – and even a threat – in white South Africa. They could be jailed or deported back to the “homelands”, “their countries” at any given time. Without the dompass you were an “illegal aliens” in the land of their birth and ancestry.

But the Pass Laws in South Africa actually date back to 1760 in the Cape when enslaved Afrikans moving between urban and rural areas were required to carry passes authorizing their travel.

The Pass Laws entitled police at any time to demand that Afrikans show them official documents or face arrest.

Residents from the township of Sharpeville burn their pass books during a demonstration against government pass laws as part of a day of protest at Sharpeville in Transvaal, South Africa on 21st March 1960. Members of the police would go on to fire on the crowd resulting in the death of 69 people and 180 injured. (Photo by Terence Spencer/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

The 21 March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre occured as a result of collective Black resistance against these Pass Laws.

Leaders of the Pan-Afrikanist Congress (PAC) of Azania’, like Nyakane Tsolo and Robert Sobukwe, were jailed for daring to challenge these racist Pass Laws. Sobukwe died still a prisoner for resisting the Dompass system.


Interestingly, all the Afrikan states that emerged after independence, including South Africa, have merely repackaged, rebranded and reconstituted the Dompass system, especially on relation to cross-border immigrants.

Similarly, groups like Operation Dudula, and their allies like #PutSouthAfricaFirst, are advocating for a return of the Dompass system, with their calls against “undocumented immigrants” or “foreigners”.

Various members of these vigilante groups are also seen posting and calling on social media platforms for people to carry their Identity Document ( ID) at all times in order to present this to the Police whenever required.

This is backwardness and madness of unquantifiable proportions. How can any progressive people living in a democracy call for a return to such barbarism?

What’s even worse, is that these calls are made selectively against Afrikans who look like them, a classical case of what Steve Biko referred to as ‘self-hatred’.


Some of the racist legislations introduced under apartheid for influx control and to police the bodies of Black people included the Bantu Homelands Act of 1970 which required that all Black people be given exclusive citizenship in a homeland, disregarding place of birth and current residence.

In 1972 Zululand and Bophuthatswana were granted self-governing status, while Transkie, self-governing since 1963, was given more autonomy as the model homeland. Transkei’s “independence” in 1976 was followed by Bophuthatswana in 1977, Venda in 1979, and Ciskei in 1981.

What you then had developing in places like Gauteng, as more diamond and gold mines were being robbed and stolen by whites, was a whole community of “Black migrants”, not only from these apartheid Bantustans, but also from other occupied and colonized territories like Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and so forth.

“Undocumented” Black people in white areas of Gauteng were either jailed, deported or forcefully removed from these white urban areas to the respective designated Bantustans or locations ns under the provisions of the Native Resettlement Act.

A Black person from the Transkie, Ciskie, KwaZulu-Natal, Boputhatwana or Venda was effectively a foreigner, a legal or illegal immigrant , depending on whether they had papers or not, in white South Africa.


In his 2019 book, ‘The Night Trains’, Charles van Onselen tells the painful story of millions of Mozambicans who built South Africa’s gold mines.

Van Onselen writes that for about 50 years, about five million Black miners from across sub-Saharan Afrika were part of this vast human migration – a transhumance by rail.

In his song, ‘Stimela’, Dr. Hugh Masekela also spoke to this transmigration and cross-border migration of millions of Black people from various parts of the continent into the exploitative gold mines.

Masekela sings: “there is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi. There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe. There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique. From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland. From the hinterlands of Southern and Central Afrika. This train carries young and old, Afrikan men who are conscripted to come and work on contract in the gold and mineral mines of Johannesburg and it’s surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay”.

This song summarizes and contextualizes the migration of Black people across the colonial borders into apartheid South Africa, in search for jobs. These are the people, the migrants, the foreigners, that built Johannesburg and for whom townships like Soweto were created.

To gain access to cheap Black labour, townships and informal settlements were formed, with Langa township in Cape Town as the first Black township created in 1927, followed by the South West Townships (SOWETO) as the largest Black township created by the white settler regime in Gauteng in the 1930s.

Mining compounds, hostels and informal settlements all formed a key part of the migrant labour system developed by white racists, and these were designed (and functioned) as tools of control, domination and repression.

These enclaves of systematic oppression became synonymous with violence, disorder and squalor that we see prevalent in today’s Black townships.

A South African miner bakes bread in an oven in the ‘kitchen’ of the workers’ quarters at a diamond mine in Kimberley, South Africa, mid 20th Century. Native workers at the white-owned mines were required to live entirely on-site for up to three months to prevent theft. The situation is little-improved today. (Photo by J. Jay Hirtz/Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)


In 1785 English philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bentham, proposed the idea of the panopticon, a design for a jail and a social control mechanism that became a symbol of authority and discipline.

The principle behind the panopticon jail is the ability to survey, control and keep in-check the maximum number of prisoners with as few guards as possible.

Effectively, flowing from this logic, the Black township is a panopticon, a maximum prison, a jail, a concentration camp. It houses Black people from across borders, nationalities and ethnicities. It is a crystalized site of Black oppression.

This is the broader historical context which the entire immigration discourse and unintellectual vigilante groups amused by theatrics, like Operation Dudula, ignore in servitude to Herrenvolkism.

Soweto, and infact the most of the Black townships in Gauteng, were created as a melting pot of poor, oppressed Black people – many of whom were “undocumented migrants” from Bantustans and ‘neighbouring countries’.

This is exactly what the ignorant Dudula vigilantes accuse Black “foreign nationals” of doing today as they peddle their anti-Afrikan ‘cleanup’ campaign. This is all reminiscent of apartheid Herrenvolkism proper.


Evidently, with this type of behavior and such anti-Afrikan sentiments raging throughout the country, the Pan-Afrikanist vision of leaders like Robert Sobukwe, Haile Selassie I, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, is subverted and betrayed by those in leadership.

The politicians, and indeed the Afrikan heads of states, have abandoned Pan-Afrikanism and the agenda of Afrikan unity is permanently off the table.

In July 1966, speaking prophetically at the inauguration of the University of Zambia, Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania decried the possible conflict between Afrikan nationalism (neo-colonial nation states) and Pan-Afrikanism.

Nyerere stated that “it was as Afrikans that we dreamed of freedom; and we thought of it for Afrika. Our real ambition was Afrikan freedom and Afrikan government. The fact that we fought by area was merely a tactical necessity”.

He went on to question “whether Afrika shall maintain this internal separation as we defeat colonialism, or whether our earlier proud boast – “I am an Afrikan” – shall become a reality. It is not a reality now. For the truth is that there are now 36 different nationalities in free Afrika one for each of the independent states – to say nothing of those still under colonial or alien domination. Each state is seperate from the others: each is a sovereign entity. And this means that each state has a government which is responsible to the people of its own area – and to them only; it must work for their particular wellbeing or invite chaos within it’s territory”.

The concerns raised by Nyerere in the 1960s remain valid in 2022. “Can the vision of Pan-Afrikanism survive these realities”, he asked.


The consequence of vigilante groups like the so-called ‘Operation Dudula’  is to have Afrikan immigrants living in designated ‘Bantustans’ and concentration camps as a permanent feature of their desired post-1994 urban landscape.

If not this, like fascists, they desire to ‘deport’ them back to “their homelands”, or worse, have them bludgeoned, stabbed, shot or burnt to death on the streets.

What they don’t realize is the fact that the entire Black population living in townships, both documented and undocumented, both local and foreign, are living in a multi-dimensional panopticon that continues to serve as an outpost of cheap labour to white industries in Gauteng and other parts of this country.

Going forward, concepts such as “illegal immigration”, “illegal mining”, “land invasion”, “unlawful occupation of land”, “illegal squatting”, “squatter camps”, “informal settlements”, “townships”, must not be merely weaponized as a permanent shield for the 1652 white settlers and immigrants.

These concepts must not be merely regurgitated and reproduced without critique; they must be located in proper historical context, interrogated and problematized.

Lest we all burn to death!

Black, Chinese, and White labourers in a gold mine in South Africa. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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