About the Author(s)

Betty Chiyangwa Email symbol
Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

Pragna Rugunanan symbol
Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa


Chiyangwa B, Rugunanan P. Second-generation Mozambican migrant youth narratives of being born in Limbo in South Africa. J transdiscipl res S Afr. 2024;20(1), a1429. https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v20i1.1429

Original Research

Second-generation Mozambican migrant youth narratives of being born in Limbo in South Africa

Betty Chiyangwa, Pragna Rugunanan

Received: 15 Dec. 2023; Accepted: 17 Apr. 2024; Published: 02 July 2024

Copyright: © 2024. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Second-generation migrant youth studies are under-researched in South Africa. Often their views are marginalised in social science research. Our article draws on the intersectionality approach to understand the daily experiences of this ‘disadvantaged group’. This article explores the complexities of second-generation Mozambican migrant youth’s lived experiences when constructing their identities and developing a sense of belonging in post-apartheid South Africa. The study was conducted in a rural area in Bushbuckridge, South Africa approximately 100 km from the Mozambican border. This case study is informed by semi-structured interviews and narratives from 22 second-generation Mozambican migrant youths aged 18 to 34 years. Views of two key informants are also provided. We found that undocumented migrants struggle to integrate into host communities and have to be creative in navigating social challenges in creating an identity and a sense of belonging in South Africa. They shared feelings of living in limbo since childhood and fear of possibly dying in limbo with no clear sense of belonging and identity. There is a strong association between documentation status, feelings of identity, sense of belonging and levels of social integration. We recommend the development of a multilayer comprehensive model to uphold the lives of vulnerable groups in South Africa.

Transdisciplinary Contribution: In exploring the interdependency and interconnectedness of social categories and social systems, the article revealed that participants’ experiences of identity formation and sense of belonging were marginalised in complex, intersectional and precarious ways where they constantly (re)negotiated their experiences, shaped by their paradoxical migrant status in South Africa.

Keywords: intersectionality; limbo; Mozambican migrants; rural Bushbuckridge; second-generation.


Since the beginning of 2023, the contestations between governmental and non-governmental organisations in South Africa regarding the presence of migrants from other African countries (especially the Southern African Development Community [SADC] region) citing factors such as posing a strain on the economy, the healthcare system and the job market1 have increased in intensity. For instance, in June 2021, there was an uprising of different social movements such as Operation Dudula in Soweto to spread anti-immigrant sentiments and dehumanise black ‘undocumented’ non-South Africans. The documentation status of African migrants such as those from Zimbabwe holding the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits has been largely scrutinised leaving them vulnerable to different socio-economic exclusions and uncertainties1 and a liminal sense of belonging. This has led to the press release and establishment of the White Paper on International Migration for South Africa the Department of Home Affairs to control the country’s migration system.2 Contrary to the negative sentiments about migrants in South Africa, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or International Labour Organization (ILO) Report4 illustrates that even before post-apartheid South Africa, migrants were contributing approximately 9% to South Africa’s gross domestic product, creating jobs and helping boost the country’s economy and government’s fiscal balance. We believe that this figure has increased as more skilled migrants are coming to South Africa. We concur with Neetzow, Asquith, Freeden and Schutze5 in emphasising that migrants’ documentation status is paramount in influencing their identity and sense of belonging in a host country because it affects their access to social services or lack thereof.

This study centres on the second-generation Mozambican migrant youth, who are descendants of Mozambican refugees (first-generation) who fled the long history of civil war that began in 1977 until 1992 and resettled in South Africa during the 1970s. The civil wars were rampant in parts of Mozambique from 1997 until 1992 and led to the displacement of approximately 35% of the country’s population. Mozambique experienced several colonial struggles, oppression and political rivalry by the Portuguese government for about four centuries, that is, from 1505 until 1975.6,8 Consequently, about 200 000 out of 320 000 Mozambican migrants (who constitute the first-generation) fled persecution and the RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance) civil war in Mozambique to settle in South Africa. Nonetheless, no conclusive figures have been reported on the exact number of Mozambican refugees who fled to South Africa because some refugees were not accounted for as they fled to South Africa on foot for 4–5 days via the South African Kruger National Park, where some fell prey to wild animals.9

The term ‘second-generation Mozambican migrant youth’ are individuals born and brought up in a host country by at least one foreign-born parent. In particular, second-generation migrants have fallen through the cracks of these contestations as they are often assumed to naturally assimilate into the country of birth. This assumption is brimming with challenges as documentation status plays a huge role in migrants’ feelings of identity and belonging, yet it is often ignored.

According to Chiyangwa and Rugunanan,10 about 50 000 Mozambican refugees settled permanently ‘self-settled’ in Bushbuckridge and gave birth to what is now the second generation of migrants. They are individuals born in South Africa – a host country to at least one migrant parent. The majority of second-generation migrants settled in the Mpumalanga province, Bushbuckridge because of the province’s proximity to the Mozambican border, which made it easy for refugees to cross the border into South Africa.11 Bushbuckridge was among the earliest districts to accommodate Mozambican refugees to South Africa in the 1970s and remains associated with large numbers of Mozambicans.

The arrival of Mozambican refugees in South Africa coincided with the apartheid era,1 explaining why Mozambican refugees (who were black) struggled to attain official refugee status at the time. They faced numerous challenges in obtaining identity documentation and consequently remained undocumented. This un-documentation status was then passed down to the second generation. Literature concurs that the history of Mozambicans settling in South Africa is more complex than what is depicted by scholars such as Momodu,6 Johnston12 Muanamoha and collegues.18 Their arrival coincided with the apartheid regime; hence, they struggled to attain official refugee status.13

When an individual is born into a host society different from that of their parents, a complex identity construction and development of a sense of belonging transpires from a young age until one is an adult and this is ever-changing daily. Evidence from the limited studies available on second-generation youth migrants in Africa illustrates that often there is a consensus that they struggle to identify and belong to the host country.13,14 According to Johnston,12 second-generation migrant youth in South Africa struggle to fit into the culture of the host countries while maintaining the ethnic background of their parents who ‘represent a particularly vulnerable sector of a historically disadvantaged rural population due to their previous lack of formal status’. They reported being in limbo and feeling dislocated from their parent(s)’ country of origin and the host country simultaneously. Further, Kebede16 illustrates that second-generation migrants experience intersecting struggles and ambiguities in constructing their identities in host societies. According to Muanamoha et al.,9 host countries in the global South have inhibiting structural conditions, presenting a bleak situation for migrants (second-generation migrant youth included). Dube17 is of the view that South Africa is home to second-generation Mozambican migrant youth born and raised in the country, yet they continue to be perceived as outsiders and feel excluded from the very same society they were born and raised in.

Transdisciplinary contribution

This article contributes to the subject of second-generation migrant youth, which is under-researched in the context of South Africa. We are doing so by answering the question: What are the experiences of second-generation Mozambican migrant youth in post-apartheid South Africa as they develop their identity and form a sense of belonging daily? Their opinions and views have often been marginalised in social science research. This is a multifaceted topic that cuts across key disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, Political Science, Geography and History in co-creating and production of knowledge across these disciplines in Social Sciences. This is so as the topic focuses on identity formation and the development of a sense of belonging, a problem that crosses more than six disciplines. This article addresses this gap by exploring the complexities of second-generation Mozambican migrant youth’s lived experiences and how they construct their identities and develop a sense of belonging in post-apartheid South Africa, specifically in Bushbuckridge. In exploring the interdependency and interconnectedness of social categories and social systems, the article revealed that participants’ experiences of identity formation and sense of belonging were marginalised in complex, intersectional and precarious ways where they constantly (re)negotiated their experiences, which are largely shaped by their paradoxical migrant status in South Africa – a host country they have known since birth.

When conceptualising the notion of identity among second-generation migrant youth, we are arguing that there is a direct effect on second-generation migrant youth’s documentation status, their identity feelings, well-being, experiences of belonging and ultimately their plans and aspirations. There is a knowledge gap in migration studies particularly in Africa, where most of the studies conducted have centred on first-generation migrants while underplaying the voices of the second-generation migrants.19,20 They are often pushed to the margins of society, where they suffer discrimination, exclusion and violation of human rights21 leading to them finding it difficult to identify with the host country or to feel that they belong in South Africa. Supported by Ramakrishnan,22 we acknowledge that generations of migrants are not homogeneous and multiple voices within the society must be heard and documented.

The remainder of the article summarises key literature and debates on the experiences of second-generation migrant youth in host communities. A discussion on the intersectional theoretical approach is done before detailing the methods and procedures followed in the study. Findings that illuminate the complexities of marginality and uncertainty of participants in South Africa are emphasised. The article concludes by offering possible recommendations for the well-being and future of second-generation migrant youth in South Africa.

Summary of a review of the literature

Migrant youth in Africa and around the world find themselves in host countries and communities out of choice and sometimes because of situations beyond their control.23,24 South Africa (among Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya) is regarded as one of the top economic hubs; hence it is increasingly becoming home to migrant youth. Yet minimal empirical evidence is documented on their experiences. The little evidence available can also not be generalised to those of the second generation because their trajectories are different. In this article, the migration background of the participants is dated back to the migration of their parent(s) into South Africa and how they struggled to acquire identity documents thus defining and largely shaping the experiences of participants in this study.

Complexities around migrants’ identity and their sense of belonging

We argue that identity formation and a sense of belonging are largely influenced by the migrants’ documentation status in the host country. The process of identity formation and sense of belonging can be considered complex, convoluted and intersectional. The complexities arise because the processes are ever-changing with life stages and are also influenced by different dimensions such as individual and/or collective factors across societies globally. For instance, one’s sense of belonging involves different aspects of legal, emotional and social dimensions.25,26 Soto Saavedra and colleagues27 define a sense of belonging as a psychological feeling in which individuals feel connected to people and the place they live. When one has a clear sense of identity and feels that one belongs to one or more social groups, they have better chances of aspiring for a prosperous future and a lack thereof translates to minimal chances of a brighter future and well-being.27 Thus, it is key that one acknowledges the importance of having a sense of belonging in life as it is shaped by their social environment and experiences.

Migrants’ belonging and the question of documentation status

In migration studies, interactions between dimensions of belonging involving rights, responsibilities and participation stem from one’s documentation status or lack thereof.28,29 The documentation status of migrants in a host country is paramount as it is attached to sets of privileges and duties enforced by political authorities in ensuring that one can participate as a full member of society or not. This is a critical issue in South Africa and outside. According to Hou, Schellenberg and Berry,30 having identity documentation helps to foster integration and negotiate a sense of belonging among migrants, and the absence of documentation consequently results in one feeling excluded and treated as an outcast from the rest of their society. Recent studies illustrate that documentation status hugely influences migrants’ sense of belonging or non-belonging.27 Soto Saavedra and colleagues27 conducted a study in the global North Utah, US, between 2017 and 2020 with 73 semi-structured interviews with migrants from Utah. Their study illustrates the intersection of migrants’ legal status (among other factors such as cultural and/or ethnicity or linguistic) and their sense of belonging in a host country. The study found that even though migrants’ legal status is not the only factor influencing their sense of belonging, it has a huge impact on how they construct their identity and sense of belonging in a host community. Next, we analyse the migration policies of the Republic of South Africa as they have a direct effect on migrant experiences of identity and belonging in the country. With this in mind, one can understand that when children of migrants are undocumented, they are prone to increased social, cultural and economic exclusions thus negatively impacting their future and how they develop a sense of belonging and identity.31,32 In the next section, we review the legal frameworks at play in South Africa and how they influence migrants born and raised in the Republic of South Africa.

Second-generation migrant youth and post-apartheid South African policies

South Africa prides itself on having one of the most progressive constitutions globally, guaranteeing unprecedented rights and freedoms to all living in the republic (see Constitutional Assembly 1996).33 Nonetheless, for migrants living in South Africa, access to services requires identity documentation that is issued by the Department of Home Affairs. Being documented or undocumented has a direct bearing on migrants across different generations. Gasper and Truong34 state that migration is a transformative process; it can transform migrants into people without their place in a social, cultural or economic sense. A review of migration policies in South Africa illustrates that the country has a complex legal framework towards migrants leading to it being inconsistent regarding the protection of second-generation migrants (including the Mozambicans) and minimal to no opportunities for them to acquire citizenship status.

For instance, the inconsistency is reflected in migrants’ access to education. The Bill of Rights and the South African Schools Act of 199635 contradict the Immigration Act 13 of 2002.36 The Immigration Act specifies that it is illegal for learning institutions to render educational services to second-generation migrants who are undocumented. Outside policy documents is the South African Migration Project,37 which conducted a study and found that a majority of 87% of South Africans perceived that the South African government was allowing too many foreign nationals into the country, thus echoing discriminatory sentiments. The South African Births and Deaths Registrations Act (BDRA) 51 of 199238 stipulates that a child must be registered within 30 days of birth and the parent(s) must provide their identity documents to register their child. This new regulation proposes that the South African government stop issuing birth certificates to children of migrants born in the country who do not comply with the BDRA. If parents do not have the required documents, the child automatically inherits the parents’ immigration status thus becoming irregular migrants, vulnerable to discrimination, exclusion from social services and abuse and without legal protection or rights, making these second-generation migrants stateless. Migrant youth (including the second generation) are also implicitly incorporated in the 2009–2014 National Youth Policy (NYP).39 The NYP focuses on youth development in the socio-economic mainstream and is underpinned by principles of social cohesion, social protection, human rights, justice, empowerment and non-discrimination, among others.

However, the NYP only references interventions for developing and integrating migrant youth and refugees who hold legal immigrant status in South Africa, leaving out irregular second-generation migrant youth who do not hold valid identity documentation. Thus, exacerbating their vulnerability to societal exclusions and discriminations. Further, Chapter 2 of the South African Bill of Rights33 stipulates access to social services and basic cultural, socio-economic and political rights to ‘all persons’ residing in the Republic of South Africa. Yet the pragmatic extension of these rights to many vulnerable groups in South Africa, especially second-generation migrant youth, has been a long and difficult process. There is also the Immigration Act of 2002,36 which posed a threat to the well-being of some migrants because it criminalised undocumented migrants or asylum seekers, and they were prone to deportation from South Africa. These policy specifications and contradictions reveal the vulnerability of second-generation migrants (and other migrants) to minimal protection in South Africa. In this study, we argue that identity and sense of belonging are intersectional and that multiple forms and shapes throughout life. We adopted Crenshaw’s40 intersectional approach to help us understand a possible explanation of why identity formation and the development of a sense of belonging are complex social processes in moulding participants’ lived experiences.

Understanding migrants’ experiences through the intersectionality approach

According to Collins and Chepp,41 the intersectional approach is applicable in various disciplines for it is a work-in-progress framework, not a finished theory, but a way used to understand that systems of power are deeply intermingled and socially constructed, and further they are taught and made legitimate and replicable.

For this article, drawing on Crenshaw’s40 intersectionality approach allows us to contribute to knowledge on South-to-South migration by demonstrating how this approach is operationalised to understand the interconnectedness of social beings, social systems and paradigms of a disadvantaged category of participants. Birka42 and Neves43 observe that a sense of belonging involves an integral process of being. The authors elaborate that the intersectional approach amplifies the subject of social integration by showing how belonging is understood and experienced through the interrelated structures of society. One must see themselves within the power structures of the society in which one lives. With that in mind, the intersectionality approach helps to explain the multiple disadvantages of participants in this study as part of the society of rural Bushbuckridge and South Africa.

The approach acknowledges that there are various categories of disadvantage and oppression, such as those arising because of one’s ability, ethnicity, class, gender, age or race. For instance, empirical studies by Valentine, Bowleg, Bauer adopted the intersectionality approach to emphasise the importance and distinction of variables across groups of people. Second-generation migrants are often disadvantaged by their migrant identity, which ultimately threatens how they envision their long-term future and relationships with the rest of society. These categories are understood as interconnected and interdependent instead of separate essentialist categories.44,45

Methods of gathering migrant youth’s experiences

To understand the experiences of second-generation Mozambican migrant youth regarding how they develop their identity and form a sense of belonging in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, we adopted a qualitative methodology as the means of inquiry. Utilising qualitative methods was beneficial for the study because it helped us to understand complex phenomena and as stated by Busetto et al.,46 the method is suitable especially when studying human beings because they have subjective experiences of identity formation and (re)negotiating a sense of belonging even living under similar contexts. This article emanated from Chiyangwa’s13 data collected during a doctoral research project. The data collection collided with the lockdown era because of the global pandemic coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This is an infectious respiratory viral disease in the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus family that spread globally from Wuhan in China which was reported in December 2019. By April 2024, approximately 7.1 million died globally. A combination of virtual interviews and face-to-face interviews were employed. Some of the key questions asked included: (1) What form of identity documentation do you have? (2) Can you tell me about your childhood memories of living in this community? (3) Talking about your current life, can you tell me how it is living outside your parents’ country? Tell me how you feel about your relationship with the local people in this rural area of Bushbuckridge.

Ethical considerations

An application for full ethical approval for this research was made to the University of Johannesburg Ethics Committee, and ethics approval and clearance was granted on 19 November 2019 under ethical clearance number REC-01-158-2019. A consent form was developed, and written consent was sought from participants in the study after a detailed verbal discussion of the study’s aim, objective, methodology and selection criteria. To further safeguard the protection of participants, we upheld non-maleficence principles and confidentiality during the research. Post fieldwork, as researchers we had to be responsible in the way how we disseminate the findings with the knowledge that they may reach various audiences in the wider public domain, so further protection of participants is crucial. All names used in the article are pseudonyms.

All dissemination strategies to be used to share the findings of this study uphold these ethical principles and a balance of potential harm and benefits that could befall participants as a result of the disseminated information. We informed participants that their real identities would never be disclosed; instead, pseudonyms were used to safeguard their anonymity. We demonstrated compassion towards participants; for instance, if they exhibited signs of distress during the interview, we would pause for approximately 30 min, allowing them time to relax before continuing. Moreover, the exact name of the rural area researched is never disclosed in this article; instead, it is referred to in general as a ‘rural area in Bushbuckridge’. This is a way to minimise identifying details that could lead to participants being identified or tracked back.

In a few cases, a translator was employed to translate the consent forms for those participants who struggled to understand English. Primary data were collected from a case study informed by semi-structured interviews and narrative data gathered from 22 second-generation Mozambican migrant youths (11 males and 11 females) between 18 and 34 years old who were born to at least one Mozambican parent living in rural Bushbuckridge and raised in South Africa. The views of two key informants who were purposively selected from the South African Department of Home Affairs and the local tribal authority provided additional perspectives on second-generation migrant youth’s lived experiences in Bushbuckridge. All interviews were recorded using a smartphone for verbatim transcribing, and the audio files were kept diligently and safely in a password-protected folder on personal laptops.

Data were explored thematically and narratively through Braun and Clarke’s47 six-step framework for analysing qualitative data. The framework included transcribing data, cleaning and revising the transcripts (in comparison to the memo notes), manual analysis of transcripts through thematic analysis (where we identified common themes, topics, ideas and patterns of meaning that come up repeatedly from the transcripts), data coding, defining and naming themes and finally producing a manuscript excerpt. Interviews were triangulated by engaging in a series of conversations with participants allowing them to share their experiences more than once. Secondary data were developed from existing literature on migrant studies and desktop reviews of publications that were accessed online to validate the research findings. This assisted in verifying participants’ stories on different occasions. To explore the interdependency and interconnectedness of social categories and social systems at play in participants’ lives, we ensured that the article discusses participants’ experiences of identity formation and sense of belonging as they narrated.

Discussion of findings – Negotiating identities and sense of belonging

This article focuses on the marginal and liminal experiences of undocumented participants (10 out of 22) even though the experiences of the other documented participants are detailed in Chiyangwa’s13 study. We argue that there is a correlation between being undocumented and the feelings of belonging and identity and these cannot be ignored. These 10 participants were vulnerable as they automatically inherited their undocumented status from their parents who constitute first-generation migrants. They found themselves in a situation they did not choose. The parents were unable to acquire formal recognition in South Africa until such government efforts to grant former Mozambican refugees legal status (through amnesty) were closed by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).11

Misago21 among others is of the view that migrants (including their children) are expected to adopt the social and cultural identities of their hosts, and in so doing, they can integrate and assimilate to realise a complete sense of belonging ultimately. Nonetheless, the findings from the undocumented participants illustrated the contrary. Being undocumented is a marginalising factor that continuously weakened evidence of belonging to participants in this article; hence, they echoed higher levels of dissatisfaction with life in a country they ‘wished to call home’. Participants struggled to adopt local cultures and environments largely because they were undocumented, and this jeopardised their ultimate feelings of belonging and notions of ‘home’. Similar to the views of Vandeyar,48,49 the realities of foreign nationals, including Mozambicans, for years diverged from the law’s specifications, making them vulnerable to several social exclusions and discriminations; this was validated by participants in this study. Some shared that they continuously wonder where they belong and fit as they could not identify with the host society or the society of their parents – a concept that this study describes as ‘living in limbo’. By providing the narratives from participants, we are offering a window into the minds of second-generation Mozambican migrant youth in a rural area in Bushbuckridge, which are not documented often in literature.

For instance, Teka emphasised how being undocumented has negatively influenced his feelings of belonging and even influenced his future:

‘I could not finish my primary school, I am 32 years old now but never got a proper job. I cannot even look after my siblings. I am always excluded from this society.’ (Enelo, 28 years, Interview March 2021)

Enelo elaborated how her identity status was not only affecting her feelings but was spilling over to affect her ‘daughter’s education’. She knew that her daughter was ‘a bright child who could qualify for college but without an identity book that will not be possible’. She recalled how ‘before she even started grade one’, she tried with her husband to ‘get someone to assist us, but they only took our money and never gave us any birth certificate as they had promised’. She shared her deepest fear regarding her daughter:

‘I guess she will just go up to matric and find something else to do that does not need her to produce an identity book …’ (Enelo, 28 years, Interview March 2021)

Her daughter constitutes the third generation of migrants who could not break free from inherited documentation status. Enelo’s narration clearly illustrates the uncertainty of migrants’ future and concurs with Kasinitz and colleagues’49 view that there is a greater risk that the third generation will fail if the second generation fails. These diverse narrations of how identity status influenced feelings of belonging are exceptional in illustrating that there is a complex relationship that results from infinite forms of an individual, the state, society and future generations.

Makungu was another participant who shared his experiences as an undocumented youth born and raised in South Africa. He recalled his childhood experiences that continuously reminded him that he was ‘different’ and ‘born here but not part of here’. His experiences illustrated an intersection of how having been raised in a poor family, where some days his family could ‘hardly afford a decent meal’, aggravated what he termed the ‘humiliating and unbearable’ treatment he received from his fellow learners during his primary school years. Such memories were also shared by Mia and Nyeleti who experienced discrimination in school, which resulted in them being unable to identify with the South African society or the original society of their parents.

Hlekani – emotional and frustrated – revealed her complexities and ‘injustices’ of how her undocumented status at the time of the study affected her sense of belonging in the village. She mentioned that her undocumented status hampered her ability to secure any form of employment despite having completed her matric: ‘I cannot do anything; even my children do not even have birth certificates’. She illustrated:

‘I was unable to proceed with my school after matric. … I could not get the certificate because I had no identity book ….’ (Hlekani, 31 years, Interview March 2021)

Hlekani’s challenging experiences were exacerbated by the intersection of being undocumented and restrictions from the Department of Education, making it difficult for her to negotiate her identity. Hence, she questioned it and where she fit in and viewed herself as living in limbo. She could not even open a bank account, buy any land or a cell phone sim card in her name. She narrated how she had to beg others for assistance in buying basic items such as cell phone sim cards or opening a clothing credit account. She continued:

‘… So, there is no privacy and when someone demands money I comply because I am using their account … Some people also have bank loans and they do not disclose that, when my money gets into their account it is absorbed and the account owner does not pay it back. I feel that it is unfair, and it makes me angry if I talk about it. How come I was born in this country and the way I am treated; I feel that I am not wanted here. It makes me question who I am, because surely if I were part of this country, I would not be suffering to get an identity book, but again I am not part of Mozambique, I have never been there so where exactly do I fit in?.’ (Female, 31 years, March 2021)

Ntsakelo also negotiated her identity and sense of belonging from her experiences of lacking an identity book and the effect it was having on her family. In her explanation, it was clear that the lack of identity documentation was hindering her career choices and minimising her aspirations. She also could not access any property because customary land rules prohibited access to land for those undocumented. This in turn influenced her sense of belonging in the country. The above extracts demonstrate different experiences of interdependency and interconnectedness of social categories and social systems in revealing their ‘limbo’ identity and weak sense of belonging to the South African community. Being undocumented for participants acted as evidence of unbelonging to the South African community. In the same light, Hirano50 states that the fragmentation of being in a host space regarding values, customs, daily practices and thinking challenges one’s identity and sense of belonging. Undocumented participants also shared narratives of discrimination and exclusion that impacted their identity and sense of belonging.

Social discrimination and exclusion

Participants’ narratives exude experiences of discrimination and exclusion from the community ultimately leading them to feel ‘lonely’ and ‘different’, without any sense of identity and belonging as well as continuously questioning their identities as they did not feel part of the community. Some of the participants shared their difficult childhood memories that they still remembered at the time of the study:

‘[L]life even became more difficult when mom passed on. The ill-treatment from others increased and you can just imagine being an orphan is not easy. I had to grow up fast and be my younger brother’s shield. So now I was not only a child of a Mozambican I was also an orphan living in the village.’ (Emma, 20 years, Interview March 2021)

Emma’s narration reflects the intersection of social challenges and discriminations she encountered and these challenges resonated with Freedom’s, Talent’s, Emma’s and Lwandile’s, who also encountered similar derogative challenges with other children growing up. These derogatory childhood experiences shook their identities and sense of belonging to the community as it was a continuous reminder that they ‘were different’ and ‘not part of the South African society’. Makungu shared sad memories that reflected the convergence of how having been raised in a poor family, where some days his family could ‘hardly afford a decent meal’, aggravated what he termed the ‘humiliating and unbearable’ treatment he received from fellow learners during his primary school years.

Not only were the participants discriminated against in the school, but some narrated their experiences where peers inside the classroom treated them unfairly. These spaces become locations of social disconnection and nonbelonging to participants. For instance, Mia shared:

‘I remember in grade seven, one day we were in a Maths class I asked a question, and I pronounced a word wrongly and everyone burst into laughter. I could hear mupoti from the back of the class. All the confidence would go just like that. It was horrible and I would ask myself where I belonged. I speak like everyone else but some people find it suitable to mistreat me and disturb my peace in class.’ (Mia, 27 years, Interview March 2021)

Similar to Makungu and Mia, Nyeleti, shared: ‘I do not feel like I belong here because the name-calling was my daily bread growing up in this village’ (Nyeleti, 23 years, Interview March 2021). The results in this study resonate with Gumbie51 findings, who found similar results where male Somali refugees living in South Africa experienced discrimination from the local people. Even though Gumbie’s study did not focus on second-generation migrants, it painted a similar picture of the negative experiences of non-nationals in South Africa as a host country. We are acknowledging that migrants and locals are multicultural groups and can peacefully live together cohesively if well supported by local authorities.

Lameck, a 29-year-old undocumented migrant, also shared his feelings of living in limbo as a result of the continuous name-calling, he was experiencing. In his words:

‘I was born here but I do not feel like I belong anywhere because I am called names that always remind me that I am different’. … I do not feel attached to Mozambique or South Africa because I have nothing to prove that, but the challenge is even though I feel that way, society always labels me as a mupoti because of my parents.’ (Lameck, 29 years, Interview March 2021)

His experience illustrates an intersection of identity and the perceptions of the self and the rest of the community members, which participants often battled within the village as they tried to assign meaning to who they are. He portrayed a picture of relationship constraint between himself and the other local members of a rural area in Bushbuckridge. The narrative of us and them threatens efforts to realise an integrated society. As Mkwananzi argues, in a world of globalisation, the distinction between ‘us and them’ – between social relations among insiders who recognise each other with a sense of common purpose and identity, and social relations among strangers who regard each other as outsiders – is problematic. Language and accent were other identity markers that participants shared to use in moulding their sense of belonging and identity.

‘Outsider’ accent

Most undocumented participants expressed how their accent was utilised as a weapon to discriminate and make them feel a sense of un-belonging to the rural Bushbuckridge community where they were born and raised – the only community they have known since childhood. They spoke XiXhosa and Isizulu (South African languages) with a Shangani (Mozambican language) accent mostly because they were born and raised by parents in Mozambique. Speaking with a Shangani accent hampered them from feeling a sense of belonging to the local community as they were constantly reminded that they were from Mozambique, yet they could not identify with Mozambique. They were feeling in limbo and alienated. Of interest is Teka’s narration:

‘I am confused sometimes, who am I really and where do I fit in? When I speak, people say I have a Portuguese accent, but I do not see it that way. When I want to fit in the Mozambican side I do not fully fit especially because I have never been there and I know very little about the country, so where do I fit, I do not know maybe I am in between.’ (Teka, 32 years, Interview February 2021)

In Bail’s52 view, the language and accent of participants such as Teka were a ‘symbolic boundary’ to how participants negotiated their identity, and belonging. Also, it was a way of negotiating how participants developed friendships and advocated for their rights (such as the right to vote) in South Africa. Nonetheless, accents created a barrier for participants to easily integrate, and this was exacerbated by a lack of formal identity documentation.

Feeling discomfort

Some of the participants in this study felt a high level of social isolation where they had to constantly ‘hide’ from police officials or not stand out in community meetings and activities. Even though this was causing them to feel discomfort, to them it was a way to cushion themselves from being overly discriminated in society. Consequently, it made them feel as if they were living in a shadow of themselves. This was also negatively affecting the ability to find work in the community. For instance, Hlekani shared:

‘It’s rough to be treated differently when you think you are the same. I have not been working for a while and no one wants to employ us. I have been surviving on doing people’s gardens, and only three days ago, I got a job as a farmworker at a farm that deals with lemon farming. I am happy because the salary is better than what I was getting when I was doing people’s gardens but what is the future going to look like, I do not know.’ (Hlekani, 31 years, Interview March 2021)

Her narrative reflects how she was taken advantage of and used for cheap labour because of her migrant background. Participants were blatant about the harsh living conditions they encountered and the uncertainty it was causing regarding their future.

Making friends was also challenging for participants like Max who resorted to being his own friend. Being able to make friends symbolised a rite of passage and evidence of belonging. Unfortunately, he was struggling to make friends at the time of the study, meaning that he felt unbelonging to the community he was born and raised in. It could not allow him to relate with other community members; instead, his experience constantly emphasised his differences in the community. He felt hopeless and rejected in the society. He shared:

‘I feel like my life is on the fence, I do not belong anywhere, who am I -, I – don’t feel South African enough to Mozambican enough [pause], so I am just there – I do not fit anywhere. This is heartbreaking.’ (Max, 22 years, Interview March 2021)

He was in a state of limbo because he did not know where exactly he fit in life.

Weak friendships, social networks and connections ultimately diminished their social capital in terms of limited opportunities and access to resources. This had a negative direct impact on how migrant youth developed a sense of belonging and identity in this rural area of Bushbuckridge. In the quest to form their identities and construct a sense of belonging, migrant youth employed precarious means such as avoidance or code-switching to navigate the terrain. According to Wessendorf and Phillimore,53 it is often more difficult for undocumented migrants to establish a sense of belonging in a host country where they have weak social networks.

Complexities and vulnerabilities

In exploring the interdependency and interconnectedness of social categories and social systems in Bushbuckridge, the findings revealed that participants’ experiences of identity formation and development of a sense of belonging were marginalised in complex, intersectional and precarious ways where they constantly (re)negotiated their daily experiences, which were largely shaped by their paradoxical migrant status in a host country. Similar to findings by Landau and Freemantle,54 this study adds that, in the quest for belonging, migrant youths were not a perfectly integrated category but evolved from almost lived experiences of creating a living that gave them an identity and a sense of belonging in South Africa. The majority of them shared feelings of living in limbo since childhood and fear of possibly dying in limbo with no clear sense of belonging to South Africa, Mozambique or anywhere else in the world.

Exclusion from natural social processes of becoming adults such as getting an identity book, voting, attaining tertiary education and applying for formal jobs puts participants in a vulnerable situation where they question their belonging and identity leaving them feeling in limbo. Resonating with Hou, Schellenberg and Berry27,30 views, migrant inclusion yields positive results where migrants can have more social participation thus ultimately realising social cohesion.

The participants’ experiences of being called derogative names such as ‘mupoti’, which they cannot identify with coupled with feelings of helplessness and continuous fear of being deported into the ‘unknown’ was reported to have a significant impact on their long-term ability to plan a clear future. So where do they belong? Are they South Africans? Are they Mozambicans? Or are they in between? For instance, Lwandile shared that she ‘never felt completely at home growing up in this village’ even though her belongings, her school, friends and parents were in the same village. These narratives concur with the findings of Stacciarini et al.,55 even though their study was conducted in the United States. Their results are paramount in illustrating the consistent feelings of living in limbo that undocumented migrant children experience across the globe in different host countries.

Lack of transnational relationships

The social process of forming an identity is a key determinant factor in developing one’s sense of belonging. However, participants in this study lacked transnational relationships because they lacked identity documentation, a sense of belonging to the Mozambican background and financial ability. For instance, Nyeleti shared:

‘It is my parents, not me, I do not feel any connection to Mozambique …’ (Nyeleti, 23 years, Interview March 2021)

Her response illustrates limited geographical mobility outside South Africa. Unfortunately, Nyeleti and several participants in this article had minimal to no relationships with those in Mozambique owing to the previous histories of permanent displacements and made their identity questionable consequently exacerbating their feelings of living in limbo. These findings align with Ramos and Marrero56 who studied second-generation migrants in New York’s Chinatown and demonstrated how frequent interactions with people in countries of origin are essential in moulding a sense of identity. Both authors validate the significance of migrants’ ties to their parent’s homeland in their construction of identity and belonging in host communities as a key aspect in moulding a sense of belonging and future aspirations to the host country.

Conclusions and recommendations

The article makes both a theoretical and empirical contribution to African literature on second-generation belonging and identity. Using the intersectional approach, we conclude that there is a strong intersection between feelings of identity, a sense of belonging, future plans, levels of social integration and resilience or lack thereof. In particular, identity documentation status emerged as a master function for migrants’ feelings of living in limbo and/or non-belonging to either South Africa or Mozambique – a situation they were born into and never chose to be in. Most of the undocumented participants at the time of the study reported that they had no connections with anyone in Mozambique and had no plans to visit the country. Further, they developed their identity and lack of belonging across different pathways, which were interconnected such as language and accent, social networks and connections as well as career identities and future plans. They reported encountering limited access to services that are supposed to enable them to make a living, enjoy their basic human rights and plan their future in the country or elsewhere bearing in mind that they have limited opportunities outside the country as the global north is increasingly closing its borders and people are gradually moving within the global south.57 Similar to studies by Gebre et al.58 the findings in this article reveal aspects of non-belonging to South Africa in ways that illuminate daily social structures and categories that are often overlooked.

The key question arising from the article is what then becomes their future and those of other African migrants who find themselves in similar situations – it looks gloomy and different stakeholders should liaise to redefine this ‘almost doomed future’. Although we are unable to change the immigration policies of the Republic of South Africa, we are recommending the development and adoption of a multilayer comprehensive model for understanding second-generation migrant youth identity and belonging in South Africa, which encourages a collaborative effort among individual migrant youth, their family members, neighbours, society and regional and national institutional structures (such as the Home Affairs Department) for migrants to establish ways that allow participants to document them, enhance and harness their capabilities, improve their wellbeing and future prospects in South Africa as participants’ host country as they are born and raised in this country. We have shown that participants experienced complex, multiple identities that influenced their positionalities as they (re)negotiate, construct and aspire into the future.

We critique the often-derogative classification of African migrants in South Africa as ‘undesirable, economic parasites, illegals’59 and ought to the revisited to avoid the continuity of a divided country across generations. To a larger extent, if the second generation fails, the third and following generations will also fail49 to develop a solid sense of belonging and to identify with their social spaces. Ultimately, upholding human rights (including those of migrants) regardless of documentation status is key in realising a ‘just’ and integrated society for all, where the well-being of all is taken care of. Thus, calling upon different practitioners to encourage and develop efforts that can help migrants achieve a sense of belonging in South Africa.


I acknowledge Professor Pragna Rugunanan who contributed in the preparation of this article by assisting me with the conceptualisation of the article, visualisation, review and editing and overall supervision. This article is based on the author’s dissertation entitled ‘Second-generation Mozambican migrant youth’s identity and sense of belonging in South Africa: The case of rural Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga’ towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Sociology in the Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, 2022, with supervisors Prof P Rugunanan and Prof K Batisai. It is available here: https://hdl.handle.net/10210/503649.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

B.C. conceived the research idea, collected data for this research article, executed the principal investigation and managed the project up to the final stages of the manuscript finalisation. Furthermore, B.C. contributed to the writing of the methods section and overall research article preparations. P.R.’s key role included assistance with the conceptualisation and visualisation, the review and editing of the manuscript, and acted as supervisor of the project and manuscript preparation. B.C. and P.R., revised versions of the manuscript until submission.

Funding information

This project was supported by the University of Johannesburg, under the Global Excellence and Stature 4.0 Funding.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are freely available from the corresponding author, B.C., upon reasonable request.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and are the product of professional research. It does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated institution, funder, agency or that of the publisher. The authors are responsible for this article’s results, findings and content.


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1. A non-democratic regime that promoted the separation of races while undermining black people.

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