n my work on a series of pan-African markets in Cape Town that are established and run by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, interior spaces emerged as sites of possibility, precarity and care (Tayob 2019). These opaque architectures evolve in response to protracted crises across the continent, the absence of functioning state support and in racialized areas and urban peripheries. These markets tend to be located on the urban margins, yet perform the circulation of transnational spatial stories, but also, importantly, of material spatial practices, people and goods. They could therefore be understood as an infrastructural system enabling a form of spatial intimacy across geographies, and within contested realms. They are for the large part unremarkable architectures, consisting of make-shift spaces built incrementally or adapted from existing structures. Beyond thinking through the immaterial networks of improvisation within these sites, the small and multiple interiors tell us about very real spatial and material negotiations that exist, and are made by displaced populations. In The Migrant’s Paradox, Suzanne Hall reminds us that “it is impossible to consider human life, no matter how abject, without paying attention to the human capacity to make” (Hall 2021, 7).  Reading the interiors of pan-African markets intersects with Hall’s call to think from and with the scale of the migrant, as both a conceptual and methodological position.   

In the Pan-African markets in Cape Town, women own and run many of the shops, restaurants and coffee shops. The spaces are densely filled with clothing, cosmetics, groceries, curtains and carpets, making the most of all surfaces available. Yet while the parceling of space into small individual shops suggests a reduction in scale, the sourcing of goods talks to relationships with spaces and people located elsewhere on the planet. The small interiors of individual shops have become a space for women to occupy the public realm and continue various domestic practices including caring for families, children’s after-school homework and the meeting of friends. They act as sites of care-giving at a scale of families and friends in the immediate vicinity, and wider diaspora. These are not spaces typically found in urban or architectural archives, as sites of populations who occupy marginal locations. Caroline Kihato notes, writing on Johannesburg, that urban studies frameworks have a particular difficulty in “seeing” the critical role that female migrants play (Kihato 2012). The opaque networks of undocumented migrants and spatial stories point instead to a more fluid, unstable and hidden set of connections, with a spatial history that is often evasive and difficult to pin down. As Hall writes, and the Pan-African markets show us, “Margins are not reducible to ghettos, just as the entrepreneurs of the edge must absorb durable precarity as core to their trade.” (Hall 2021, 61). 

Through a multi-scalar ethnography, The Migrant’s Paradox explores streets as relational edge territories defined by their creativity and ongoing “durable precarity.” Hall reminds us that entrepreneurs working in these urban margins must absorb ongoing and sustained economic and political violence. For Hall, walking, listening, talking and mapping are the means to work through a careful reading of the street and associated interiors, to read the wider socio-political context. Thinking with the scale of the street as both intimate and global in turn suggests a political and epistemological reorientation and re-positioning. Hall asks us to take note of the street as a space of discourse and contesting citizenship, and to read the edge as a condition where people find ways of a quiet resistance in political and cultural terms.  While care as a strategy is not inseparable from systemic inequality and power structures, Hall points to certain forms of sustenance which are not always reducible to mechanisms of control. In pan-African markets, I similarly suggest that care is a vital strategy for “enduring precarious worlds” (Hobart and Kneese 2020, 2). Care is a useful framework for studying pan-African markets, enabling a recognition of what AbdouMaliq Simone refers to as a “politics of peripheral care” that emerges in response to systemic structural violence by and for marginalized populations with limited means (Simone 2018, 25). Hall’s writing, similarly,  suggests that care might be the grounds of practices of refusal and repair, and ways of being political at the edge. The Migrant’s Paradox offers us insights on how we might read marginal sites as edge territories, reminding us of the intersectional and political nature of method and concept. 

Sekko’s Place, Cape Town, South Africa (Drawing and photograph by author, 2014- 2015)


Hall SM (2021) The Migrant’s Paradox: Street livelihoods and marginal citizenship in Britain. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
Hobart K and Kneese T (2020) Radical Care: Survival strategies for uncertain times. Social Text 142 (38): 1 - 16. 
Kihato CW (2012) The City from its Margins: Rethinking urban governance through the everyday lives of migrant women in Johannesburg. Social Dynamics 37(3): 349–362. 
Tayob H (2019) Architecture-by-migrants: the porous infrastructures of Bellville. Anthropology Southern Africa 42 (1), 46 – 58.
Tayob H (2018) Subaltern Architectures: Can Drawing ‘Tell’ a Different Story? Architecture and Culture. 6 (1), 203 – 222.
Simone A (2018) Improvised Lives: Rhythms of endurance in an Urban South. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Huda Tayob is senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and a Canadian Centre for Architecture Mellon Fellow on the project Centring Africa, and her research focuses on minor, migrant and subaltern architectures. She is co-curator of the open access curriculum Racespacearchitecture.org with Suzanne Hall and Thandi Loewenson, and co-curator of the digital podcast series an exhibition Archive of Forgetfulness.