Law Faculty Lecture engages the theme of race, borders and imperialism

Posted on September 03, 2019

On 13 August 2019, the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria hosted a lecture by Professor Tendayi E. Achiume on “Neo-colonial Borders: A Critique”. Achiume is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School and is also currently serving as United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Dr Sithembile Mbete, lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, was the Respondent.

In the lecture, Achiume developed a legal-theoretical critique of contemporary international borders and international migration. She began the lecture by discussing what she termed the “consummate political stranger” - a term referring to peoples classified as non-nationals and/or third  world migrants who seek asylum or refugee status in the Global North. She argued that the ideological and geo-political categories of first and third world were are historically racialised categories that shape how international law responds to issues of international migration, mobility, and xenophobia. Her critique of contemporary international borders focused on the concept of concept of sovereignty and its relationship to histories of colonial and imperial power.

The colonial enterprise relied and continues to rely on the creation and upholding of political associations between the so-called third and first worlds. According Achiume, it was actually through a form of European ‘migration’ (being the most prominent historically) that the non-European was formed, thereby creating the colonial subject. Colonial migration became a mode of extraction and exploitation of colonised territories and populations. In colonial migration, lay a freedom of movement, mobility, and migration. This distinction between European and non-European she argues is strengthened and enshrined in international law, which is instrumental to the colonial and imperial enterprise.

Achiume further pointed out that the global hegemony of the “first world” continues to rely heavily on the existence of the “third world” – an entanglement she describes as “sovereign interdependence”. Citizens of the third world are therefore not political strangers to the first world but have political rights and claims in relation to the first world states. This is partly what she means when she refers to “migration as decolonisation”.

In her response to Achiume’s lecture, Mbete focused on how both the contemporary problems of xenophobia and citizenship have been historically shaped by race. 

The lecture and the robust discussion which followed emphasised how purportedly ‘race-neutral’ elements of modern law originate from, and still operate according to, racial logics (dispossession, exclusion, dehumanisation). This lecture stimulated the discussion on critical and third-world approaches to international law that account for the history of colonisation and racialised origins of borders and political communities.

The Department of Jurisprudence and Faculty of Law look forward to future collaboration.


Image source: OHCHR

- Author Phumzie Biyela / Zenia Pero, Department of Jurisprudence

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