The Magic of the Populace: An Ethnography of Illegibility in the South African Immigration Bureaucracy



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: ERRATUM Volume 33, Issue 2, i, Article first published online: 24 November 2010


Recent anthropological accounts of the state have demonstrated the potential for danger or illegibility in the public's encounter with the state. Much of this work has taken the perspective of the public, however, and less has been said about how functionaries of the state perceive their interactions with the public. This perspectival bias needs to be overcome through ethnographies of the state and of state bureaucracies in everyday practice. This article examines the Immigration Services Branch of the South African Department of Home Affairs, a state bureaucracy widely deemed “illegible” by South Africans and non-South Africans alike. It documents some of the factors that inform the actions of street-level bureaucrats, illustrating how bureaucrats develop systems of meaning to help them mitigate the challenges posed by an unpredictable populace and management hierarchy. These systems serve to stabilize these two unstable entities, but they also enable officials to act in ways that might run counter to official discourse while simultaneously upholding its legitimacy. Their stabilization efforts therefore incite a destabilization of the state, leading it to appear as “magical” or “illegible” to the public.