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Ethiopian immigrants in South Africa and the potential impact of their transnational identities on the Ethiopian state



Namhla Matshanda


It has become increasingly important to understand the linkages between political identities and migration. This paper is interested in how intraAfrican migration facilitates the emergence of transnational identities among Ethiopian immigrants in South Africa. According to existing research most of these immigrants are from Southern Ethiopia (Feyissa and Garba, Nd). We know that when they arrive in South Africa they often use kinship networks, some of which facilitate their journeys to the country (Kefale and Mohammed, 2015). However, it is not clear how political identities manifest themselves in these migrants and how these might influence their politics in South Africa and at home. This paper highlights the potential political push factors of Ethiopian migrations to South Africa and considers how these might impact the migrants’ expressions of national identity. Using theories of transnationalism and long-distance nationalism, the paper foregrounds the production and reproduction of an Ethiopian national identity abroad. The paper highlights the often-neglected political drivers of Ethiopian migration in addition to the social and economic drivers. The continued rise in intra-African migration on the continent calls for a closer interrogation of this trend from different perspectives. Finally, the paper asks which concepts and theories of migration travel across disciplines, as it explores the possibilities of a truly interdisciplinary agenda for the study of migration in Africa.


In South Africa, the burgeoning field of migration studies is dominated by narratives of xenophobia (Classen, 2017) with an overwhelming focus on immigrants from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (Crush et al, 2005; Gebre et al, 2011). The rich history of these migration patterns has facilitated an established body of literature. In this literature, immigrants from East, North and West Africa are often either portrayed as victims of xenophobia or their experiences are analysed within a development framework. The movement of African migrants to South Africa, including those from the Horn of Africa, is generally framed in socio-economic terms, with politics downplayed as a causal factor relative to the social and economic push factors. This broad framework does not adequately account for the political implications of intra-African migration. Some immigrants from East Africa in places such as Ethiopia and Somalia become prominent entrepreneurs in the South African informal economy, which gives them notable power (Gastro and Amit, 2013). Their socio-economic experiences cannot be separated from their political lives. Because of the constantly changing nature of the Ethiopian national landscape, and the ongoing pressures on the state, the number of Ethiopian immigrants making their way to South Africa continues to increase. Ethiopians have traditionally travelled to South Africa for a number of reasons, chief among them the need to make a better life for themselves. Kefale and Mohammed (2015) note that most Ethiopian migrants that travel to South Africa intend to return home once their economic conditions improve. However, in the past five years political and security developments in Ethiopia have shifted notions of home and belonging quite significantly. Prior to 2018 we saw major political upheaval in the form of protests in Amhara, Oromia and Southern regions, and in November 2020 the civil war began. This suggests that there might be more political and security factors that have led to recent migrations, in addition to the socio-economic factors.

The main objective of the broader research agenda from which this short paper is drawn is to understand how the Ethiopian national identity is produced and reproduced in a transnational setting, particularly in light of growing contestation over the nature of the Ethiopian state. Ethiopian migrants who travel to South Africa are not a homogenous group. When they leave home, many come from specific regional states, which are divided along ethno-national identities. These identities have implications for how homeland politics and diaspora identities intersect (Thompson, 2018).


Political push factors

The Horn of Africa, and Ethiopians in particular, offer vital insights into the study of African migration and transnationalism. Since 1991, the Horn of Africa has been a zone of political turmoil that has led to large scale migrations from the region. In this volume, Abdullahi Hassan notes how Somali immigrants arrived in South Africa in large numbers after 1991, following the collapse of the Somali state. In this case, the Somali push factors were clear and the fact of statelessness produced specific notions of place-making and generated certain patterns of collective action among Somali immigrants (Hassan, 2022; Thompson, 2016). However, there is limited research on the events that prompted large-scale migration from Ethiopia to South Africa. It is generally believed that it is socio-economic push factors that have led large numbers of young Ethiopians to South Africa. In recent years there has been investigations into what is known as the “Ethiopia- South Africa migration corridor” (Estifanos and Zack, 2020). These studies suggest that large numbers of Ethiopians are leaving and crossing a number of African national borders on their way to South Africa (Estifanos and Zack, 2019; Kefale and Mohammed, 2015; Estifanos, Nd.). However, one cannot fully understand these migrations without considering the political push factors.


In the 2000s Ethiopia enjoyed double-digit growth and was hailed as an economic miracle where the country drastically reduced poverty, raised life expectancy and prioritised education (Carnegie,2011; IMF, 2018). However, these successes came at a price as they existed within a contested political landscape that saw a rising democratic deficit. The country’s hopes for democratisation regressed to the extent that some argued that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government was sliding back into the authoritarian practices of the pre-1991 military regime (Abbink, 2006). The political crisis and the absence of democracy became so wide spread as to threaten the ethnicbased federal experiment. It became clear that the idea of a “revolutionary democracy” remained at the level of rhetoric (Abbink, 2011). The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was a proponent of “Authoritarian Developmentalism” (Dowden, 2012), the idea that Ethiopia could not enjoy democracy before achieving economic development. Cracks within this strategy began to show and it became clear that this approach could not be sustained in the long term.


Conflict and violence in the federal regional states began to shape Ethiopian politics. Human rights violations and abuses of power became the norm as the government pursued economic highs at all costs (Looney, 2015). In the absence of democracy, disgruntled citizens struggled to find outlets for their grievances. The EPRDF government repeatedly made a mockery of elections, where the opposition was silenced (Abbink, 2006). Anger grew among the population, especially young people who began to organise themselves along ethnic lines. The rise of a violent ethnic consciousness was necessarily an outcome of the absence of democracy, it was also a consequence of the ethnically defined federal system that was adopted after 1991. From 2015 violent conflicts between ethnic groups over a range of issues shaped Ethiopian political discourse (Yusuf, 2019). These violent clashes were met by a fragmented ruling coalition and a fragile state. This is the context for why many young Ethiopians embarked on desperate journeys to South Africa and elsewhere. It can only be expected that the civil war that started in November 2020 between the government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) will also result in waves of migration from Ethiopia.

Transnational identities

Transnational migration is the “process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc, 1995:48). This classic definition places emphasis on the experiences of immigrants and the “ongoing and continuing ways in which current day immigrants construct and reconstitute their simultaneous embeddedness in more than one society” (Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc, 1995:48). This theory of migration brings us closer to understanding the role of the nationstate in how migrants develop their transnational lives. Benedict Anderson (1991) demonstrates and argues in Imagined Communities that there are clear emotional and cultural forces at play when nations are forged. These emotions carry with them myths and images of a romanticised and distant past. It is commonly believed that these connections can remain quite strong as migrants settle in their new host countries. What remains of interest among different immigrant groups is how these identities are maintained and how they intersect with diaspora identities. Previous literature, argues Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc (1995), has tended to highlight the erasure of these memories of transnational connections. Empirical evidence continues to demonstrate that this is clearly not the case, as many immigrants, including the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants to South Africa, retain strong connections to home (Kefale and Mohamed, 2015).

According to Schiller (2005) long-distance nationalism is a “set of identity claims and practices that connect people living in various geographic locations to a specific territory that they see as their ancestral home”. Somalis from the Ethiopian Somali region are the most studied diaspora group from Ethiopia. This may have to do with the broader Somali migration discourse that has been driven by the condition of statelessness. It is also evident that the Somali diaspora has much influence in homeland politics, as noted in Sahra Ahmed Koshin’s paper in this volume. However, there is limited data on the ways in which Ethiopians from other regions maintain their ties to home. This is an important area of study that has implications for current and future reconstructions of the Ethiopia state. The actions of the long-distance nationalists vary and take on different degrees of connections to the ancestral home. Similar to the mainstream form of nationalism, long-distance nationalism takes as truth the existence of a nation that consists of a group of people that share common history, identity and territory. The specific point of difference between conventional nationalism and long-distance nationalism is that the latter is a product of transnationalism (Sobral, 2018: 51). In the Ethiopian case, because of ethnic federalism, transnational identities hold the potential to challenge the dominant discourses of the nation and state.

Existing scholarship offers good reasons to expect ethnic and regional identities to carry over from Ethiopia to new host communities. Thompson (2018) explores the intersection of ‘homeland politics’ and diaspora identities by assessing whether geopolitical changes in Ethiopia affect ethnonational identifications among Ethiopian origin populations in Canada. His study interrogates the Ethiopian-Somali ethno-national identity as an attempt to consider more broadly the relationship between homeland politics and diaspora identities. He demonstrates how changes in the homeland (Ethiopia) influence and reshape diaspora identities, which give rise to transnational identities. Other research demonstrates this intersection by focusing on the Ethiopian Somalis whose homeland politics in Ethiopia have undergone several transformations in addition to being highly contentious (Hagman and Khalif, 2006). Ethiopians have a profoundly strong sense of their national identity but since 1991 this identity has been mediated by ethnic nationalism through ethnic federalism. Kebede (2012) notes the different expressions of transnational identities that exist among different generations of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States. In the past two decades when Ethiopians left their homes as migrants, they left with specific political identities, which were informed by ethnic federalism. Therefore, we can expect migrants from different regional states to develop quite distinct transnational identities.

The term ‘identity’ is not used arbitrarily in this paper, because it is ambiguous, contradictory, confusing and is characterised by reifying connotations (Brubaker and Cooper, 2005: 5). The challenge of using the term ‘identity’ multiplies when it is used in the context of migration. However, in all its ambiguity, ‘identity’ looms large in the political discourses of the Horn of Africa, not least in Ethiopia (Tronvoll, 2009). In this paper ‘identity’ is used not as an analytical category but as a category of practice (Becker and Schulz, 2017). The paper thus takes identity not as fixed, but as transient. Migrants move between identities as they navigate their new transnational identities.


In the case of Ethiopia, national identity has been a fluid and contested concept since 1991 and diaspora identities have been largely influenced by ethnic federalism. Vertovec (2004) proposes that transnationalism moves beyond describing transnational migrant experiences, that it must also consider the “more deep-seated patterns of change or structural transformation” that come with such practices. The Ethiopian state and its identity have undergone and continue to undergo significant transformations and the role of migrant transnational identities in that reconstruction remains crucial. Political dimensions of migrant transnationalism are deeply embedded in particular kinds of structural change which can be seen to test the long-standing ideals of “identitiesborders-orders” (Vertovec, 2004: 980). A case in point is how authorities in the Somali Regional State (SRS) instrumentalised federal provisions in order to manage cross-border trade, and the role of the Ethiopian Somali diaspora in this process (Thompson, 2021). These structural transformations are located at the local level, the level that most explicitly reveals the particularities of migrant transnational identities.


This paper draws our attention to the need to understand the political implications of the link between identity and migration. It has discussed how and why the investigation of transnational identities can provide us with insights into the different manifestations of intra-African migration. The paper proposes a research agenda that probes the political dynamics of the “Ethiopia-South Africa migration corridor”. There is an overall need to understand how migrants from other African countries, beyond the SADC region, navigate their transnational identities in South Africa. With regards to the Horn of Africa, migration studies in South Africa are dominated by the Somali experience, which in turn is focused on Somali entrepreneurship and their experiences of xenophobia. The number of Ethiopian immigrants on the other hand has increased in recent years, yet not much is known about their experiences. Since the advent of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, Ethiopian political identities have become quite fragmented. This heterogeneity suggests that the development of transnational identities will differ from one person to the next. Furthermore, socioeconomic push factors are only one part of the story of Ethiopian migration trends to South Africa. This paper argues that it is perhaps more relevant to think about how migrants’ transnational identities influence homeland politics and how these might bring about unintended deep-rooted structural transformations to how politics is imagined and performed in their home countries.

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