South Africa

South Africa

On the move: South Africa and migration

On the move: South Africa and migration

Last week, statistics from Census2011 indicated the extent to which South Africa continued to be shaped by migration. This is a country still on the move. KHADIJA PATEL spoke to Wits University’s Professor Loren Landau about the impact of migration on the economy and development.  

“If people could leave the Eastern Cape to live like this,” I asked my friend, gesturing at the sprawling informal settlement behind us near Lonmin’s mine in Marikana, “what’s it like in the Eastern Cape?” 

“There aren’t jobs in the Eastern Cape,” he responded absently.  

He’s an industrial sociologist turned journalist, so he would know what he’s talking about. And his explanation, cursory as it was, was the most glaring answer to my frustrated attempts to understand why people would leave their homes and families in the Eastern Cape to live in the shadow of a platinum mine that even now, in the throes of a strike that captured the world’s attention, appears utterly oblivious to the struggles of the informal settlement before it. These people travelled from the Eastern Cape, the Free State; others came from Mozambique to work. 

And their movement in and across the country influences the way South Africa is developed. 

Judging by results from the Census2011, the greatest growth appears to have occurred in Gauteng. There were 7.6 million people counted in the province in the 1996 census. This then grew to 9.2 million by 2001 and to 12.3 million last year – an increase of 33.7% from 1996 to 2011.

The population of the Western Cape grew by 28.7 %, from almost four million to 5.9 million. Mpumalanga grew by 20% from 3.1 million in 1996, to just over four million last year.

In contrast, the Free State’s population, 2,745,590 according to Census2011, grew by just 1.4% over the same 15-year period. Juxtaposed against a national population increase of 15.5% in the period spanning 1996 and 2011, this suggests that at least a fair number people may be migrating out of the province, since the birth rate is not low enough to account for the discrepancy. 

So, too, the primary reason for a low growth rate in the Eastern Cape is said to be large net migration. In the Eastern Cape, 436,466 people left the province in the last ten years. Ninety-four percent of the Eastern Cape population was born in the province, compared to 56% in Gauteng. Almost two million people born in the Eastern Cape live in other provinces, with the majority living in Western Cape (0.9 million) and Gauteng (0.5 million).

Earlier this year, Western Cape Premier and president of the Democratic Alliance Helen Zille famously described people fleeing the dysfunctional Eastern Cape education system for the far-better one in the Western Cape as “refugees”. And while Zille’s remarks earned the ire of the ANC and caused a flap in the media, the underlying reasons for this movement of people remained contentious. 

Professor Loren Landau, Director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg, believes people migrate from the Eastern Cape for the same reasons they would move anywhere else, including to a new country. “People migrate because of inequalities in opportunity and to pursue life projects,” Landau says. 

“The fastest way to alleviate poverty is through movement,” he explains. 

“Clearly more should be done so that people in the Eastern Cape have better access to social services,” Landau adds, explaining that improving services will not necessarily impede movement across provinces. 

In South Africa, patterns of migration that account for the relatively low population growth rate in the Free State and the Eastern Cape are seen as symptomatic of failure rather than pro-active engagement with spatial opportunities. 

“The South African discourse suggests movement is a failure,” Landau points out. 

“People do the natural thing. They move. Regardless of what we do, people still move.” He points to global trends of migration, remarking that South Africa is not unique. “Even the US has similar trends of migration. The economy works in unequal ways.”  

While the reality of human mobility continues to feed the economy and influence development a post-Apartheid South Africa, many citizens are unfortunately still living through the legacy of the forced migration prescribed by Apartheid.  

“South Africa does not have a migration or urbanisation policy,” Landau clarifies. Despite the need for improved policy responses to human mobility, reform is said to be hindered by a lack of capacity, misinformation and anti-migrant sentiment within and outside of government. 

Research undertaken by Landau and his colleagues at the African Centre for Migration and Society, together with the South African Local Government Association last year, revealed that municipal authorities remained wary of population movements and few acknowledged human mobility as a fundamental driver of, and response to, development. The report, entitled “Governing Migration and Urbanisation in South African Municipalities – Developing Approaches to Counter Poverty and Social Fragmentation” showed that human mobility in South Africa had direct implications for local governance, service delivery, and economic development. 

While international migration in and out of the country gains much attention, however, movements into and within municipalities are far more significant in demographic and policy terms. “Municipalities’ inability to effectively respond to migration ultimately reduces the possibility of promoting poverty alleviation and social cohesion,” the report says.  

“The gold is not in the Eastern Cape, so people have to move to work where it is,” Landau adds.

The country cannot meet development targets without significant migration of skilled and semi-skilled labour. Government and civil sectors have, however, shown little inclination to improve migration management. 

Landau says, “Migration affects every sector: housing, infrastructure, education, health…” According to him, municipalities ought to better prepare by performing an assessment of the labour demands of an area before distributing resources and services. Mobility, be it international or domestic, does pose risks to security and the country’s developmental trajectory. We saw this in 2008 during the xenophobic riots, and we are seeing it now in the unrest in the mines.  

“Mobility is not a once-off thing. It is an integral part of South Africa’s development,” Landau says. It makes sense, then, to understand it as accurately as possible. DM

Read more:

  • DA vs ANC: The useful politics of economic refugees in Daily Maverick  

Photo: Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town’s crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options