Violence and Bordering on the Margins of the State: A View from South Africa and the Southern Border of Spain



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Gail Super and Ana Ballesteros-Pena. Gail is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto (Canada) and Ana is a research fellow at the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). The ideas discussed below come from their article “Violence and bordering on the margins of the state: a view from South Africa and the Southern border of Spain” recently published online in Theoretical Criminology.


Migrants on the fence in Melilla, at the border between Spain and Morocco. (Photograph by JOSÉ PALAZÓN)


Violence at the physical borders of states and internal bordering exposes the contradictions of the liberal state project, specifically the myth that it is nonviolent and has shifted to greater humanization. Borrowing from critical geographers (see here, here and here), we use the term ‘bordering’ as a verb to imply the process of struggle that goes into constructing a boundary. In a recent article, we examine the violence of internal and external expulsions in support of bordering processes at opposite ends of the African continent: in and around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (on the Southern border of Spain) and in informal settlements in Cape Town (South Africa). Our case studies highlight the multiple spatiotemporalities of bordering and the ways in which Sub-Saharan black Africans are subjected to extensive mobility restrictions on the basis of their supposed ‘security risk’. Racialized processes of bordering and restrictions of the mobility of poor black people cannot be considered apart from historic forms of expulsive state violence. They are produced by, and productive of, structural inequalities. They play out symbolically and literally, internally and externally, between nations and within nations, between Europe and Africa, and among black and white, and rich and poor persons.

We argue that unlawful (or borderline lawful) violence is used to secure territories and assert sovereignty by expelling unwanted persons. We use the term borderline lawful to refer to situations where the legality of a violent action is not initially clear (and hence open to dispute), and/or when an initially lawful form of violence collapses into unlawful violence - for example when a lawfully constituted neighbourhood watch acts unlawfully (by punishing a presumed outsider), or when a border guard exceeds the amount of force reasonably necessary to perform a lawful action.

In former black townships and informal settlements in South Africa, spaces which were produced by colonial and apartheid state violence, curfews, banishments, evictions (via padlocking the doors to shacks and/or demolitions), violent expulsions conducted by crowds of people, corporal punishment, retrieval of stolen property via the use of violence, bashing down and/or burning the shacks of suspected criminals, and lethal instances of collective violence (where suspected criminals are beaten and/or burnt to death) are some of the ways in which civilian actors deploy violence to deal with crime – punishing and expelling so-called ‘criminals’ from the ‘moral community’. Unlawful and borderline lawful punitive violence is also inflicted by the state: apart from police violence and police vigilantism, the local state (and its agents) mete out unlawful and overtly expulsive violence when acting against so-called ‘land invaders’ – extremely poor people who have unauthorizedly erected shacks and (sometimes) brick and mortar houses on vacant state or privately owned land (as reported here and here) .

At the Southern border of Spain, bordering techniques, such as surveillance technology, naval patrols, razor wire, and various forms of corporal violence are deployed to securitize the border between Spain, the EU, and Morocco. Both the Spanish and Moroccan states engage in violent pushback strategies and utilize corporal punishments against those who attempt to access Melilla and Ceuta (as reported here, here and here). In February 2014, at least 14 people died while trying to swim to the Spanish shore. Despite the fact that the Spanish forces deployed rubber bullets, detonating rounds of teargas and smoke canisters, the Guardia Civile were acquitted of unlawful violence. Violence at the physical border is complemented by violence further away from the fences:  Moroccan police frequently raid and dismantle migrant camps in the forests near the Ceuta and Melilla fences, ban undocumented people from staying in certain areas or cities, and displace others to southern Morocco (report). This demonstrates the increasingly transnational and geographically flexible nature of sovereign power, and the way that non-EU countries (in our case Morocco) are made responsible for preventing irregularized migrants from reaching the EU’s borders.

These violent bordering practices are largely ignored (and hence tacitly accepted or obliquely facilitated) by the South African and Spanish states. Both states are selective in the power that they exercise, and the sovereignty that they claim. Inspired by Walter Benjamin we argue that the unlawful (or borderline lawful) violence inflicted by the Spanish and Moroccan states, serves to fortify Spain’s border with Morocco. The violent partnership thus ‘preserves’ the Spanish state (and its immigration laws) as well as ‘Fortress Europe’. In the case of South Africa, we argue that the State tolerates unlawful expulsive violence such as vigilantism, evictions, and demolitions because these repressive forms of order do not overtly threaten its sovereignty. Both the Spanish and South African states abdicate their jurisdiction to act against unlawful violence, thus sharing their monopoly over lawful violence and complexifying their sovereignty. As a result, the border between lawful and unlawful violence, and between violence and the State is rendered porous.


The ‘Wetlands’ Informal settlement in Masipumelele, Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gail Super)


When the Moroccan government expels black Sub-Saharan Africans to its northern or southern borders, Spain is able to avoid legal responsibility for the oftentimes flagrant human rights abuses deployed to protect its physical border, because these occur away from the spectacle of the fence, in Moroccan territory. We argue that the Spanish state is complicit in the unlawful violence which occurs on Moroccan soil. At another spatiotemporal scale, by refusing to recognize the rights of migrants and asylum seekers who climb the border fences (on Spanish territory), and by physically pushing them back into Moroccan territory—where they are assaulted by Moroccan border guards—the Spanish state facilitates unlawful violence against sub-Saharan black Africans. In both contexts it abdicates its jurisdiction to act against unlawful violence.   

In informal settlements in South Africa, where the State fails to provide security (in the broadest sense of the term, including security against poverty, disease, houselessness, etc.), poor residents are made responsible for their own safety. The South African state calls for ‘communities’ to be involved in crime control and crime prevention but fails to provide logistical or material support for these local endeavours. This abdication of jurisdiction is intensified when it fails to act against, and tacitly tolerates, low-level vigilante activities and other forms of unlawful violence. By outsourcing certain types of policing to inchoate ‘communities’, by tacitly tolerating and hence legitimating punitive forms of local justice, and by contracting and colluding with private security companies to demolish shacks in the service of expelling so-called ‘land invaders’ it too abdicates its jurisdiction to enforce the law. As such, responsibilisation and absence promote (and implicitly condone) unlawful (and borderline lawful) violence by those who are ‘preventing’ crime, or enforcing the law.

In both of our case studies, where the Spanish and South African states share their supposed monopoly over lawful violence, the boundary between lawful and unlawful violence collapses in on itself and law’s injustice becomes plain to see. Sovereignty too is revealed to be porous, obscured, fluid and fragile.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Super, G. and Ballesteros-Pena, A. (2022) Violence and Bordering on the Margins of the State: A View from South Africa and the Southern Border of Spain. Available at: [date]

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