Jacquelin Kataneksza

“Welcome to Dark City”

My February flight into Harare lands in the evening. After almost 24 hours of travel, I am exhausted. I move through immigration and customs control as quickly as possible and out into the arrivals hall to meet my aunt and uncle, who have come to pick me up. After loading my bags into the car, we sit in a queue behind several other vehicles, the occupants of which are all trying to pay their parking fees and leave the airport. We slowly roll up to the parking attendant's window. "How are you paying?" he asks us. "Swipe," my uncle replies, pulling out a bank card to do so. The attendant only then tells us that the swipe machine is not working due to a power cut. My uncle sighs and turns to my aunt in the passenger seat. My aunt berates the attendant as she picks up her phone to pay. Unbothered, the attendant shrugs and then uses his cellphone flashlight to highlight a placard in his booth that displays the mobile money transfer instructions and the number to which to send the transfer. It takes a few tries because the network is slow, but finally, we are on our way. As we pull out of the airport, I notice that none of the streetlights on the main road is on, and it feels depressingly dark. I comment on this from the backseat as we slowly navigate over and around potholes. "Welcome to Dark City," my aunt replies.

Long dubbed the Sunshine City due to its warm, temperate climate, the new nickname "Dark City" refers to more than a lack of electricity at night.i It symbolically points to what the city no longer is and how living in this context means living in the "effect" of darkness. There is often a pervasive sense of ambiguity about how things do or do not function in the city's spaces.

But the more I reflect on what we can no longer see in the city (both literally and figuratively), the more I wonder if the darkness might paradoxically shed light on a set of logics on how people successfully navigate their daily lives. And if by so doing, we might turn on its head the image of Zimbabweans as passive subjects of political volatility and economic instability. Because while the persistent sense of opaqueness brings to the fore questions about what is (in)visible in the city and to whom, the ambiguous nature of this urban context can also be beneficial.[1]

I wonder about this because somehow, amid all its uncertainty and ambiguity, the city continues to function. And, in and through this "dark city," people articulate and navigate their quotidian life. People work, children go to school, and provisions are acquired. In fact, in these opaque spaces, where few official institutions seem to work, and the city appears underregulated, emergent institutions and practices materialize. Residents find creative ways to navigate economic life in the face of shrinking infrastructures, a lack of goods in stores, chronic cash shortages, and uncertainty about what the future holds. And, for many, part of navigating life in the city means participating in the shadow economy. It also means looking and moving beyond the city and the border to South Africa.

This essay explores one such mobile manifestation of the shadow economy. It concerns cross-border running, which I define as a process and set of infrastructures wherein members of an emergent class of Zimbabwean cross-border traders called runners are sourced online via Facebook or WhatsApp to physically procure goods from grocery and household stores in South Africa on a commission basis for customers in Zimbabwe. These are goods that cannot be sourced locally or which are prohibitively expensive. Instead, the goods are illicitly transported over the border through a network of informal relationships between runners, bus drivers, and border officials. By focusing on the spatialized experiences of those in movement and the places across which they move (specifically the Beitbridge border between Zimbabwe and South Africa), I reflect on the complex geography of intimately connected and interdependent operations of runners and what they reveal about the spatial (re)production of the Zimbabwean economy and the attenuation of the nation-state.

Running as a strategic modality for navigating precarity

Running occurs in multiple forms. In its earliest inception,runners would receive order requests and then travel by "chicken bus" [2] to South Africa to purchase goods. They would transport as much as they could as personal luggage atop the bus, taking advantage of loosely regulated policies concerning the duty-free transportation of certain essential commodities. However, over time, running has become an increasingly sophisticated enterprise. In recent years, Zimbabweans increasingly rely on mobile phone technologies to facilitate these economic exchanges. These communicative processes around running reveal new forms of technologically mediated mobility across spatial registers and internal (social) and external (physical) borders. People make creative use of the technologies that are already embedded in their everyday lives. Customers pre-select their desired goods online from various stores in South Africa, including Pick N' Pay, Makro, and Woolworths. Once compiled, this list is then sent by WhatsApp to a runner who has been sourced by word of mouth, either in-person or more commonly online. Runners are either paid in full before procurement of goods, although some offer cash on delivery to specific customers, by mobile money transfer, or via bank wire transfer to an account outside of the country. This payment includes the total cost of the goods and the running fee, typically between 25 and 35 percent of the full price of the goods. Runners then travel across the Zimbabwe-South Africa border by bus or personal vehicle to purchase goods, or as is becoming increasingly common, communicate via WhatsApp message to an associate already in South Africa who completes procurement. If a specific product is unavailable, pictures of suggested alternatives are sent via WhatsApp to customers. Once goods are purchased, runners transport them across the border after paying a "levy" to border officials, or they are transported on a commuter bus or truck, and the bus driver or commercial driver, commonly called omalayitshas, are paid a fee to guarantee safe delivery of goods to their destination city (typically Bulawayo or Harare).

Facebook is used by runners for marketing purposes and by potential customers to vet the reliability of runners. One is more likely to contact their runner via WhatsApp to arrange a purchase. That runner will use the same technology to coordinate with an associate already in South Africa to acquire the goods and arrange its transportation to Harare. WhatsApp is also used to communicate delivery times and locations, while payments are transmitted via mobile money applications such as EcoCash. These digital infrastructures used serve as specific sets of technical tools and as places through which to create various relationalities across space and beyond boundaries. In this way, goods from South Africa, previously unattainable to those unable to travel, become easily sourced through a few short Facebook and WhatsApp messages and a one-time mobile money transfer. These digital interactions distort (squeeze and stretch) space and boundaries, illuminating those virtual mediums' fluidity for connection and collaboration. Thus, the tools are co-implicated in the constitution of social relations in fluid, complex, and co-contingent ways.
For most runners, the business of goods provision is a highly structured one. The runner economy is a highly ordered and well-regulated commercial and social set of processes, even if many of its rules are informal. The act of purchasing basic goods from hundreds of kilometers away is normalized through running. One no longer makes a short trip to the local neighborhood grocery store to acquire (non-perishable) goods. Instead, the Pick n' Pay in Musina or Johannesburg becomes the local grocery store, and the acquisition of household staples takes anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks. What may appear as discrepancies in the time between placing an order and receiving a good (sometimes just a few days, other times several days or a couple of weeks) is often a calculation concerning the efficiency of goods' transportation, i.e., when an order is placed, a runner may have to compile enough orders to make a trip across the border worthwhile hence a longer lag time. Other times the order placed was the last one needed to make that trip worthwhile, thus a shorter turnaround time. Therefore, running distorts people's perceptions and experiences of time.

With further regard to temporality, goods obtained from South Africa are not only relatively inexpensive grocery staples and household goods but also serve as tools for Zimbabweans to "stick it" to the government by accessing a certain nostalgia for the life which they previously lived, during a before-time when accessing these goods was neither impossible nor prohibitively expensive. These basic goods, for example, specific snacks, or laundry detergents, trigger memories of specific place-based experiences of that before time, a subjectively emotive reminder of Zimbabwe as a different place than it is now, allowing people to inhabit this past place in the present. Runners facilitate the maintenance of this sense of place by carrying out their daily informal economic practices, which provide their customers with actual representations of memories, despite present conditions. These nostalgic processes actively change physical space, i.e., one's home is filled with these goods and reinscribe it into a haven that invokes an alternative reality.[3] In this way, running evokes a sense of nostalgia that is both spatial and temporal.[4]

The processes of running also reveal the constantly malleable or even fluid relationship between the city of Harare, the Beitbridge border, and the South African towns and cities. These territorially fixed spaces are also constantly changing because of the interactions in, across, and beyond them. Attending to runners' mobilities forces a reconsideration of how the boundaries of Harare extend beyond its official territorial limits to and across the border. Runners bend rules, time, space, and territorial boundaries, disrupting them all. As runners and their customers enact these strategies for navigating precarity, spatially stretching urban life. As they engage with each other in improvisational ways, these people whose lives would otherwise be led apart contribute an alternative construction of the city outside normative urban logics.

Furtively un-bordering the border

Borders have long been framed as static and fixed, serving as containers for the territorial integrity of states.[4] A system structured by nation-states and corporations actively controls the right to unhindered movement. Borders typically serve as symbols of bureaucratic state control that only those people with passports, money and the correct paperwork can easily navigate. But the relative ease with which runners or their associates maneuver the border reveals how borders filter certain bodies and not others and that these boundaries are perpetually open to question.[6] Runners, with the assistance of bus drivers and border officials, circumvent this formalized global mobility infrastructure, operating within a parallel mobility infrastructure complete with its own rules that deform and distort the Westphalian understanding of the nation-state as territorially fixed. The border is a site in which their intensely mobile subjectivities and social formations are configured, and spatial knowledges deployed.

In all instances of running, "arrangements" exist at the border. I am sitting across from a runner named Niameh, trying to avoid her steady stream of cigarette smoke when I first hear about these "arrangements." She openly details her operations around the procurement and transportation of goods from across the border. When I ask, "What's the situation at the border with taxes? Duties?" she shakes her head. I push, asking, "No? Nothing?" Niameh sighs and narrows her eyes as she assesses whether she can trust me. Finally, after a long drag on her cigarette, she says, "There's an arrangement. I know nothing about them. I just get the groceries for them." Another runner, Munir, is far less cryptic. When I ask him about his border "arrangements," he laughs before describing how he would travel himself by bus to purchase and transport goods and pay the bus driver directly to facilitate an easy crossing during his early days of running. He goes on to tell me that bus drivers employed a sophisticated albeit analog system of levy collection. Long before arriving at the border post, a handwritten chart delineating a fee scale corresponding to the total value of one's purchased goods was passed around the bus with an accompanying envelope for cash deposits. Each passenger who wanted goods transported would calculate their fee according to the chart and place the appropriate cash amount in South African rands into the envelope. When I ask him if he thinks bus drivers then passed along a portion of that money to border officials to enable a duty-free or duty-reduced crossing, he nods animatedly and says, "100 percent". Munir's anecdote illustrates how uneven power relationships are contested and negotiated through the exchange of various capitals, which fluctuate in value depending on location and scale.

A 2020 Bloomberg article featuring a runner named John highlights a variation of these "arrangements." John reports that he makes between 4 and 6 trips a month, and his car trailer consistently sags under the weight of maize meal and household goods. He times his travels to coincide with shift changes on the Zimbabwe side of the border when he says, "my customs guy will be on duty."[7] John chooses to wait in the "no man's land" between the South African side of the border and the Zimbabwean side until he receives a WhatsApp message alerting him that "his guy" has started work. Once that happens, he moves quickly and efficiently to the front of whichever line his contact is manning, "buys him a drink," and continues his way to Harare along the potholed roads that let you know you've arrived in Zimbabwe.

The "no man's land" between the Zimbabwe and South Africa border posts is constructed as a non-place. And in fact, there is a definite sense of liminality that this space evokes. The highway bridge above the constantly fluctuating Limpopo River is intended as transitory and temporary, a space across which one passes not pauses. And yet, it is in this in-between space that runners like John do indeed pause on their way back from South Africa, laden with goods, waiting for the go-ahead from their contact on the Zimbabwean side of the crossing. Remaining in this way transforms the intended meanings and use of this space as imagined by the state, transforming it into a place of potential energy. ii

This space's liminality mimics the lives of many runners and perhaps more so other cross-border traders who constantly move and function in and across these borderland spaces for their livelihoods. This space provides a certain sense of ambiguity or opaqueness that is beneficial to runners and other cross-border traders, which can disorient other travelers. The entire experience of traversing the border is marked by periods of "slowness alongside spurts of acceleration slowness alongside acceleration, blockages, stoppage, and friction as much as liquidity and circulation."[8] While runners' movement across the actual border posts is marked by frenetic energy, it is in these spaces waiting to be processed where they spend much of their time in a state of pause. Sometimes this pause is brief, their contact available and ready to facilitate their crossing. At other times it is hours or even days long, as they wait behind other vehicles also trying to cross or wait for their agent to give them the go-ahead to cross. Inhabiting this space points to a state of being outside of geographic norms.

The border is revealed as a highly ordered, complexly socialized, and potentially transgressive space for those who know how to act within and across it through Munir and John's navigations. John's explanation of his process reveals how the multiple social arrangements and shifting socio-technical and socio-spatial dynamics evident in a running exchange facilitate new ways of perceiving and engaging with space and other people. Niameh, Munir, and John illustrate how running comprises a complex social economy. Those who routinely use runners' services and think they understand its intricacies may be unaware.

The interactions among runners, bus drivers, and border officials highlight a level of coordination and complexity on the part of runners that underlies the visible contours of this economy. This political geography is known only by those implicated in the runner economy. They also point to forming alliances and reciprocal linkages across "new and different ecologies of place" [9] in a multi-scalar way. Further, the interactions around the processes of running illustrate the fluidity of relationalities, transactions, and compensations occurring in the in-between spaces and how these are governed by a set of logics that are not driven by the modern state bureaucracy and that have their own structures and forms and rules. The presence of this "shadow mobility infrastructure" [10] at the Beitbridge border unveils an alternative understanding of how political and economic geographies are mapped. This unveiling prompts a rethinking of how the complex processes that accompany peoples' movement across space also shift their positionalities vis-à-vis those spaces and other people.


Provisionality is the logic that undergirds economic life in Zimbabwe. It manifests across multiple spatial, social, and temporal registers. This essay has explored how Harare residents, living in a near-constant state of precarity, use the people, spaces, and infrastructures available to them to think dynamically about the kinds of mobile practices that can facilitate daily life and the acquisition of certain goods.

I have positioned running as a conduit for understanding social relations and runners’ movements as capsules that capture various forms of spatial relationality. I have explored the complexities around the movement of runners, the goods they transport, flows of information, and the power relations that govern (im)mobilities. By unraveling the many space-times across which Zimbabweans operate and exploring the spaces of encounter revealed within them, this essay has offered an exploration of rethinking places considered territorially bounded as spatially unfixed differentially negotiated through an often-changing map of social networks of bodies in states of flow and flux. I have theorized Harare as an extended urban space destabilizing its fixed spatiality and forcing a reconsideration of the scalar relations of the city and various movements within, across, and beyond it. 

By excavating the spatial and temporal tactics that runners use to bypass economic regulations and generate income, I have emplaced running as a mechanism for coping with political and economic precarity and as a set of space-producing and time-distorting activities. I have attempted to show how urban residents engage in countervailing and complementary practices of living with instability through their improvised interactions, and in this way, revealing changing senses of place.

By focusing on how running is operationalized, I have reflected on the Beitbridge border as a transgressive social space always in flux. Although borders are understood as physical instantiations of state control, the negotiations occurring at and across this border are illustrative of a different kind of politics between the state and its citizens—a politics wherein control is enacted in different ways in and across the postcolonial state. I contend that runners’ movements across this space reveals fluid political and economic communities that are not over-determined by the perceived spatial fixity of borders nor controlled by the nation-state

By tracing and tracking what running signifies about the Zimbabwean economy and sociality across the border, this essay has examined how the intensification of mobility (people, commodities, policies, and technologies) is constituted and transmitted over time and space. Focusing on runners’, their technological modalities and the spaces across which they operate, I have offered an alternative view of collaborations that extend beyond clearly identifiable social processes and forms to an examination of the openings, and negotiations that are present in places where provisionality is the norm.
Themes: Premonitions of Bodies, Spatial Claims

Methods: Bordering, Documenting the Mundane


[1] Simone, AbdouMaliq. For the city yet to come. Duke University Press, 2004.

[2] Chicken buses refer to buses crammed full of passengers, not unlike a truckload of chickens.

[3] Blunt, Alison. "Collective memory and productive nostalgia: Anglo-Indian homemaking at McCluskieganj." Environment and planning D: society and space 21, no. 6 (2003): 717-738.

[4] Munoz, Lorena. "Selling memory and nostalgia in the Barrio: Mexican and Central American women (re) create street vending spaces in Los Angeles." In Street vending in the neoliberal city: A global perspective on the practices and policies of a marginalized economy, pp. 101-117. Berghahn Books, 2015.

[5] Donnan, Hastings, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra. "The political anthropology of borders and territory: European perspectives." In Handbook of Political Anthropology. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.
[vi] Agnew, John. "Borders on the mind: re-framing border thinking." Ethics & global politics 1, no. 4 (2008): 175-191.

[6] Agnew, John. "Borders on the mind: re-framing border thinking." Ethics & global politics 1, no. 4 (2008): 175-191.

[7] "Cross-Border Runners Brave Borders With Bribery in Zimbabwe." Bloomberg. January 19, 2020. (accessed September 2, 2021)

[8] Sheller, Mimi. Mobility justice: The politics of movement in an age of extremes. Verso Books, 2018, p. 3.

[9] See Conradson, David. "Landscape, care and the relational self: therapeutic encounters in rural England." Health & place 11, no. 4 (2005): 337-348.; Brickell, Katherine, and Ayona Datta, eds. Translocal geographies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

[10] Spijkerboer, Thomas. "The global mobility infrastructure: Reconceptualising the externalisation of migration control." European Journal of Migration and Law 20, no. 4 (2018): 452-469.

[i] For a filmic exploration of nighttime in Lagos in piece, see: NIGHTWALKERS, INSURGENT NOCTURNAL ECOLOGIES by Chrystel Oloukoï

[ii] For another piece on reimagining space, borders and place in Zimbabwe, see: EARTH / SATELLITE STATION / MAZOWE by Thandi Loewenson

Jacquelin Katanekszas research focuses broadly on how people living in precarious urban contexts mediate daily life and associated (im)mobilities across social and physical space. Specifically, Jacquelin is concerned with the provisional modalities that Zimbabweans use to navigate daily political and economic precarities and what those navigations reveal about the spatial production of the Zimbabwean economy and Zimbabweans’ relationalities with each other across racial and social boundaries.

Jacquelin’s public scholarship and other writings have appeared on Africa is a Country, Stranger’s Guide, and Mobilisation Lab. She has also commentated on Zimbabwean politics on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, This is Hell Radio, and Cape Talk Radio.

︎ @ZaklinyK
︎ Jacquelin Kataneksza