Africa at Noon on January 31st, 2018

“Africa’s First Failed Asylum Seeker? The Tragic Plight of Dugmore Boetie and the Exilic Geographies of Sharpeville”

Benjamin Lawrance
Professor of History
University of Arizona

Time and Location

12:00pm, 206 Ingra­ham Hall, 1155 Obser­va­tory Drive, Madi­son, WI


In November 1960, the Sophiatown-born journalist and poet, Dugmore Boetie (1926-66), seemed desperate. Fleeing north from South Africa after the Special Branch police “visited” his Johannesburg home, he “managed to reach Tanganyika with one leg and no money.” After traveling overland, Boetie found his way to Dar es Salaam. But there he ran into further trouble. Boetie’s exilic narration of an irregular route to protection offers an entrée into the earliest moments of refugee mobilities in decolonializing Africa. Reproducing a timeworn tradition in intellectual circles, Boetie’s politically-charged writing first attracted the attention of the authorities, resulting in the harassment that forced him to flee. Indeed, thousands of South Africans sought exile, because of unrelenting persecution that intensified dramatically after the Sharpeville Massacre.

Boetie’s experience underlines the perils surrounding apartheid’s exilic geographies and draws attention to the notion of refuge in an epoch of dramatic change in refugee status determination. But as the 1951 Refugee Convention had not yet been extended beyond Europe, and Tanganyika was only to win independence in 1961, Boetie was inadequately shielded by prevailing interpretations of refugee mandates. This paper explores late colonial African mobilities and European responses to the first wave of refugees with a view to making sense of this interstitial episode and why Boetie’s protection claim failed to gain traction. Boetie’s poetry and journalism is more fragmentary, but evidence about the apartheid state’s unrelentingly pursuit of black intellectuals and the broader category of “requests for help,” petitions, and other begging letters, substantiates his fears.


“I’m a legal historian and work in Africa and with West African migrants around the globe. My research explores mobility, labor, and exploitation through time and space, and I have written about historical and contemporary slavery, human trafficking, cuisine and globalization, human rights, refugee issues and asylum policies. I am the Editor-in-Chief of the African Studies Review, the principal journal of the African Studies Association (USA). I’m currently working on a history of postcolonial African social and political persecution, drawing on the narratives of African asylum seekers in Europe and North America.”