An American Migrant in Johannesburg

by | Mar 16, 2014 | Emotions, Johannesburg | 17 comments

I’ve been thinking about migration.

1. One that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan.
2. An itinerant worker who travels from one area to another in search of work.


It started last week. My friend Nelisiwe, aka Nells, invited me to be part of a video campaign she’s working on for the International Organization for Migration, called “I Am a Migrant Too”.

Heather migrant

Nells asked me to wear my Basotho blanket for the “I Am a Migrant Too” shoot. (Photo: Ofentse Mwase.)

At first I thought it was a little weird that I was participating in this campaign. “Do you really want an American?” I asked Nells.

“We want everyone,” she said.

I was born in America and I live in South Africa. I’ve lived here for close to four years. But I had never thought of myself as a migrant before. Nor had I thought of myself as an immigrant.

1. A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.

When asked to explain the context of my living situation (which happens on a daily basis), I have always referred to myself as “a foreigner”, “an expat”, or more simply “American”. Up until recently, my description on Twitter and Instagram read that I’m “an American living a quirky expat life in Johannesburg.”

1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.
2. One who has renounced one’s native land.

As part of Nells’ video shoot, I sang a song that went like this:

We breathe the same air.
We see the same sun.
I am a migrant.
Are you a migrant, too?

These lyrics got me thinking.

The next day, I attended a book launch for my friend Caroline. Caroline is a writer and sociologist who specializes in migration issues. Her book is called Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an In-between City, and documents the lives of women who migrated to Joburg from various places in Africa. I’ve just started to read the book and I’m really enjoying it.

Caroline’s interest in migration is personal as well as professional. She is originally from Kenya and moved to South Africa in 1994. In many ways, my story and Caroline’s are very similar. We’re both educated women who moved to South Africa because we weren’t getting what we wanted from life in our home countries. Neither of us had firm plans for what we would do or how we would support ourselves when we arrived in South Africa. We’ve both faced major challenges, but have managed to build good lives for ourselves here.

Caroline told me that she has never thought of herself as an expat. In her mind she has always been a migrant. In the preface of her book, Caroline writes:

I began my Johannesburg life selling Kenyan crafts to passersby on the streets. Lured by the city’s promise of a brighter future, I left Kenya with little more than an address and a conviction that Johannesburg was the place to be in. And indeed it was.

Caroline migrant

This is Caroline Wanjiko Kihato. She is a migrant.

Caroline’s book launch, as well as the conversations that I had with her afterward, made me think some more. Why have I never considered myself to be an immigrant or migrant? Why have I always defaulted to calling myself an expat?

Wikipedia says this:

An expatriate (sometimes shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing…

In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by their companies, rather than for all ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrant workers’. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant worker’.

I also asked Nells if she considers herself a migrant. Nells is South African, born and raised in Mpumalanga province, and she moved to Joburg in 2008. Here is what she said:

Yes, I am a migrant to Johannesburg. My heart is still in Mpumalanga. That’s where my happiest memories are, my most trying times have been experienced, my first experience of falling for someone, where everything is authentic…I raise my son with the same principles that I received there…

I came to Johannesburg for tertiary level studies, but ultimately ended up staying here for love. It became my second home because home is where the heart is…

Nells migrant

This is Nelisiwe Mahlangu Mwase. She is a migrant.

Similar to Nells, I initially moved to Joburg for love, although I stayed for other reasons. I wasn’t relocated by a company and didn’t have a job when I arrived. I didn’t come here out of economic necessity, or due to violence in my homeland. I wasn’t “fleeing” anything, other than my own inner turmoil. I left a country that people tend to want to immigrate to, rather than emigrate from. I don’t know if I’ll be here forever, but I have no plans to leave.

Am I a migrant, and immigrant, or an expat? In some ways I’m all of them; in other ways I’m none.

But if I had to choose from all of the definitions above, I would take the first one: “One that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan.” That’s pretty much what I did.

Heather Braamfontein

I’m Heather Mason, aka 2Summers. I am a migrant. (Photo: Gareth Pon)

So, migrant it is. I am a migrant, too. Are you?


  1. Timmee

    These skin and bones are merely a rental, anyway.

    • 2summers

      True. We’re all migrating to another place eventually.

  2. amelie88

    I thought about this too when I lived in Spain. I suppose technically I was an immigrant but I didn’t feel like one. People in Spain tended to refer to immigrants as people from South America or Asia. Other Europeans/Anglo Saxons were expats or given the name of “guiri” (a word I never understood was a term of affection or an insult). I suppose I was an immigrant but I knew the move wasn’t a permanent one since I viewed Spain as a temporary situation. But I guess I was an immigrant, even if it was a short term thing.

    • 2summers

      Yep, it all depends on our own perceptions, really.

  3. catherine

    a migrant in Switzerland, for sure, but would love to migrate to SA!

    • 2summers

      Well, come on down then 🙂

  4. shonagirl

    I am a migrant. Black female African migrant to be exact. On some days, living in Johannesburg as a young black female migrant is an extreme sport of sorts, but it’s also lots of fun!

  5. UnderAnAfricanSun

    Interesting topic ! I moved from the US to France in 2000 and stayed for over 13 years. I moved without having a job just because I wanted a life change. I never set any time limits to how long I would stay, so I think migrant fits best there. I never considered myself an expat at all. Now I have been living in South Africa for just 4 months. This time I had a job offer but it is a local contract so again I would say migrant. We have no idea right now how long we will stay. My partner is french and if we went back to somewhere it would probably be France. Or maybe if opportunity arises we will end up somewhere else. Strangely I don’t really feel like I have one home. I really feel that South Africa is home to me now, but if people ask where I am from, it’s France or the US or both.

    • 2summers

      Three different continents: You are a legit migrant.

  6. Kathryn McCullough

    Fascinating discussion, Heather. I don’t know what I am. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Gonna give this language some more thought.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • 2summers

      I’m also not sure it matters, to be honest. But suddenly I’m finding it interesting to think about. It’s an internal thing for me, really — part of my process of defining who I am and why I’m here. Anyway, let me know if you have any more thoughts down the line 🙂

  7. Sally

    Thanks for this post! I actually think this is an important topic, the language we use to define those who cross borders is important and shapes our view.

    Speaking generally, those from the US and Europe tend to define themself as expats while defining others as immigrants. I think that race and class play a role in the language we chose to use. I also think that having a choice to leave impacts the term.

    Here in the US, we are fairly focused on migration and our southern boarder and seem ignorant of the fact that every day, all over the world, people cross boarders. Migration is a constant occurrence driven by wars, economics, natural resources, politics etc.

    How interesting for you to be able to examine this and consider how to identify yourself. How do others define you?

    I’m sure your friend’s book offers a very thoughtful discussion of the topic (having studied sociology I’ve a soft spot for the work of sociologists).

    Very thoughtful, thanks for sharing!

    • 2summers

      Thanks for the comment, Sally. I’m actually not sure how others would define me. I think many of my “expat” friends would define me as an expat. Many of my South African friends simply consider me a fellow South African 🙂

  8. Eugenia A Parrish

    Do you have to cross an international border? I definitely “fled” from the midwest to settle on the west coast of the US, so I guess that would follow the first definition and make me a migrant, although I’ve always had the impression that in this country the word implies the move is temporary and continuous, as in Steinbeck’s farm workers. I’ve worked as a professional and I have no intention of returning to where I was born, so maybe that makes me a kind of expat-within? It’s strange, I suppose, but I’ve always dreamed of being an expat like Hemingway and his ilk, with no real preference for where, but I never made it past a tourist visit. Maybe having no set direction is what torpedoed it. So now I’m living it through you! Thanks.

  9. Eugenia A Parrish

    Does distance apply? I remember once a friend was complaining about ‘migrants’ coming up from Mexico to “take Americans’ jobs”. I asked where he was from and he said Illinois. So I said, “Let me get this straight — you came from two thousand miles away to take some native Californian’s job, and you’re complaining about a guy who came from fifty miles down the road?” He was shocked and admitted finally that my comment “made a lot of sense”. People here tend to forget that while most Americans have to travel thousands of miles to be in a foreign country, most people in Europe, Africa and Asia can and do cross an international border in a day or so.

    • 2summers

      These are such interesting perspectives. Never thought of it this way before. But as I was discussing with a friend a week or two ago, national borders are really just fabricated lines, anyway. The result of some strange instinct that modern humans have to define/divide themselves. Sometimes I wish all of our borders could just be erased.


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