Making workers real: Regulatory spotlights and documentary stepping-stones on a South African border farm

Maxim Bolt


Documents are central to the infrastructure through which formal workforces are constituted. They thus offer a privileged vantage point onto how formality is asserted and experienced as real. On the Zimbabwean–South African border, where formality is a plural and uneven patchwork of “formalizations,” thousands of migrants are employed on export-oriented commercial farms. Connections between state institutions and workplaces are regulatory spotlights. More complex than employee protection or domination, or than window-dressing fiction, they make workers by recognizing them as different from “border jumpers.” Workers make their own use of spotlights. Documents become stepping- stones, as migrants broker conversions toward more durable forms of worker identity. They navigate the constellation of fixed points that documents represent, bringing coherence to fragmentary encounters. Spotlights and stepping-stones lie at the point where formal regulation and livelihood plans constitute one another, and thereby establish the shared ground for negotiating the “reality” of a wage economy.


Zimbabwe, South Africa, real economy, farm labor, formality, documents, marginality

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau7.3.017