Academic writing often portrays migrants as either passive victims of violence and aid recipients or as courageous heroes facing horrific indifference and hazards. This article recodes them and their activities as potent forces for reshaping practices of state power. In this depiction, displacement also becomes a lens for re-evaluating the nature of sovereignty in urban Africa. Through its focus on Johannesburg this article explores how migrant communities intentionally and inadvertently evade, erode and exploit state policies, practices and shortcomings. Rather than being bound by their ambiguous status, they exploit their exclusion to exercise forms of autonomy and freedom in their engagement with the state and its street-level manifestations. Through these interactions, displacement and the continued mobility of urban residents is generating new forms of non-state-centric urban sovereignties and new patterns of transnational governance shaped, but not controlled, by state institutions. To recognize these evolving configurations we must look beyond Manichaean perspectives to see the full nature and degree of territorial control.