This article reports on a study that explored how Eritrean refugees in South Africa – part of a generational wave of emigrants labelled the “generation asylum” by Hepner (2015) – make sense of their refugee experience and identities, herewith referred to as interpretative repertoires. Interpretative repertoires is a concept coined by sociologists, Gilbert and Mulkay (1984) and later adopted by Potter and Wetherell (1987), to refer to the different and at times contradictory ways in which social actors characterise or describe a phenomenon. Five dominant interpretative repertoires were identified based on a discursive analysis of interview transcripts with 10 participants living in Pretoria, South Africa: (1) the “rights” repertoire; (2) the “embrace your refugee identity” repertoire; (3) the “victimised refugee” repertoire; (4) the “protected refugee” repertoire; and (5) the “criminalised refugee” repertoire. It is argued that participants deployed contradictory and yet complementary repertoires, drawing primarily on lived and imagined experiences in their country of origin and asylum as resources to give meaning to their refugee identities. These repertoires demonstrate the refugees’ ambivalence and bring to the surface the tensions they experience between South Africa’s constitutional promise and their relative legal security, on the one hand, and the everyday threat of xenophobic violence and negative public sentiment, on the other hand.
Article is based on a paper presented at the 2013 SASA Conference.