Covid-19 reveals migration links in South Africa’s human economy

Covid-19 reveals migration links in South Africa’s human economy
South African Police Services officers direct and check the movement of South Africans at a checkpoint in Cape Town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The spread of Covid-19 tells a great deal about the hidden human economy of South Africa and the persistence of circular migration in the country.

During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent visit to Port Elizabeth, the Premier of the Eastern Cape, Oscar Mabuyane, noted that a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in his province was closely related to the movement of people between the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. He said that as winter arrived in the Western Cape and conditions in Cape Town’s townships and informal settlements worsened, more people would follow. He said that he did not want to blame anyone for these migration flows, but stressed that they needed to be discussed rather than ignored.

The insertion of Covid-19 into the national population is like putting dye in water. The disease, like dye, will move freely across the surface as flows in the pool determine the spread, leaving clear and detectable patterns. In this time of coronavirus, lockdown was meant to keep all the colours in place by stopping flows within and between cities, neighbourhoods and regions.

During hard lockdown in March and April, the common human flows across space were temporarily blocked, but as soon as the restrictions were slightly relaxed, the dye started to spread. The clearest pattern in South Africa is that which connects the Western Cape, which is a hotspot for the disease, and the Eastern Cape, where positive testing has indicated that the virus is spreading rapidly. Some travel over the Easter weekend created the initial spurt, which accelerated during the temporary movement amnesty when the country dropped from stage 5 to stage 4.

The spread of Covid-19 thus tells a great deal about the hidden human economy of South Africa and the persistence of circular migration in the country. The evidence of the dye in the water suggests that, while the lives and livelihoods of the rich are territorially enclosed in middle-class suburbs, those of the poor are inherently unstable, mobile and trans-local. 

In this regard, the past failure of the state to recognise and accommodate trans-locality in its planning and policy frameworks has come home to roost. Accordingly, Mabuyane should be congratulated for seeking a co-operative approach and stopping the acrimonious exchanges among provincial leaders and politicians, who have been playing the blame game. 

So why do planners and politicians not see the importance of the obvious, visible connections between urban and rural areas? The broad answer is that their models do not pay sufficient attention to the function of the human economy in South Africa.

The human economy

The 20th-century Hungarian economic historian and anthropologist, Karl Polanyi, argued that impersonal, or what he called dis-embedded, economic transactional orders were a unique historical feature of market society, or capitalism. He suggested that, by contrast, the realm of economic transactions in non-market societies was characterised by social and moral considerations, such as reciprocity or redistribution, and not by mere self-interest and maximisation.

Polanyi was mistaken, however, in one important regard. The idea that capitalism or market society is asocial and driven by a universal logic of maximising behaviour is problematic. In consumer society, social values, morals and aspirations mould needs and wants, which in turn shape the transactional orders and production regimes of capitalism.

One critical take-away from Polanyi is that both utilitarian and socio-cultural forces determine economic behaviour everywhere. The British social anthropologist Henrietta Moore also recognised this when she warned (Marxist) economists not to think simply of the “reproduction of labour power” as a matter of biological reproduction, but to see it as a matter of reproducing socialised people and identities. This approach encourages more thinking on how the human economy works, and how household dynamics, socialised exchange circuits and localised “value chains” shape it.

It is in times of societal threat, such as during the present crisis caused by the spread of the Covid-19 virus that social reproduction acquires a special salience as people reconnect with their roots and reflect on their core social identities. This is one of the reasons that governments all over the world have supported people seeking to return to their home countries or homelands to be with their families. In South Africa, there has also been increased movement between urban and rural areas that has caused tension during the stringent lockdown imposed by the national government.

The problem, as the government is realising, is that many South Africans do not have only one home, but relate closely to two or more places. These often include a place in the city and at least one home in the countryside. Indeed, people without a rural home, especially for their children, are often said to lack the means of acquiring an authentic black, South African identity. 

In the present context, in which many black South Africans still feel alienated and vulnerable in South African cities, the current hard lockdown imposed by the government is problematic. Who has the right, people ask, to stop them from going home, especially in these trying times? 

Accordingly, law enforcement against the grain of trans-locality and circular migration has resulted in a war of words between regional governments, who are struggling to keep people confined to local cities and regions. The tensions between these authorities reveals there are no institutional structures for the management of trans-locality and double-rootedness in South Africa. 

Migrant labour and trans-locality 

Lockdown, like development, has created territorial traps. It appears to be an obvious, seemingly self-evident response to Covid-19 from both biomedical and classical market-economics perspectives. From the biomedical point of view, germs and viruses travel with people; so, stopping people from moving represents a basic method for preventing the disease from spreading. Meanwhile, rational-choice economists assume that population movement is unidirectional as people logically leave areas of low economic opportunity, such as the former rural homelands, for the cities. 

By contrast, those who pay close attention to the socio-cultural aspects of economic theory and focus more on what people are doing – the so-called “substantivists” in Polanyi’s framework –notice that many people in the cities are wanting to gravitate to the rural areas. The rationalists would say that these people are moving because they realise that jobs will be scarce during the Covid-19 crisis and there is more space for social distancing in rural areas. 

However, we might interpret this movement differently. People are reflecting on the social and cultural identities and significance of home at this critical time, especially for people who have essentially never been welcomed in, and gained full citizenship in the city. They reflect on questions of their own belief systems, issues of moral integrity and security; kinship and close-knit social relations; and cultural identity, as well as the historical experiences of migration in the face of the increasing rapid spread of Covid-19 across the country.

The nexus between the Eastern and Western Cape has become pivotal over the past few weeks. The evidence suggests that many people from the cities have taken advantage of the opportunity to return to their rural homes, because they want to be with their families at this dangerous time. They are apparently also catching up there on customary practices and rites that they have not been able to perform earlier by virtue of long absences in the city.

The return of migrants has created alarm. The Eastern Cape government is now saying that it does not want people from the Western Cape invading “their territory”, bringing in disease from the city. What they, of course, fail to acknowledge is that these same people regard the Eastern Cape as home and, along with earlier generations, have been moving to and fro, between work and home, for the past century.

Rural home-visits enable people to re-centre their lives, spiritually and culturally, as they reconnect with their families and their ancestors in their home places. In reflecting on this movement, it is important to note that those who still have land and homes in rural areas have retained these, often at great cost to themselves and their families, and as a form of resistance to colonialism and dispossession.

Holding on to these places, however remote they may be, has its own rationality. There is a logic to why people say that they continue to “suffer for territory” in the ways they do, and retain their connections with an ancestral home and culture, to ideas of an “old nation” which has been rapidly pushed aside by new ways and social change in recent years. These places also play a crucial role in early childhood socialisation and primary education for children whose parents are away working in the city.

In this context, home is a kind of heartland, a crucial reference to a moral community, which comes sharply into focus in times of danger. It is not an abstract place or space that is adequately defined by western science as a site of germs and disease, nor merely a spatial container of economic opportunities and structural impediments. An appreciation of the “people’s science” of home in South Africa requires that we recognise that trans-local is a national reality as households and social groups are stretched across space to ensure both survival and social reproduction.

Consequently, economic and medical science will not be effective in managing the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa unless they are able to connect with people’s own practices of the larger human economy of householding and social reproduction. A new collection of essays, of which I am a co-editor, Migrant Labour after Apartheid: The Inside Story (HSRC Press 2020) offers useful insights into the substantive aspects of trans-locality and household economies in contemporary rural South Africa. 

The book shows how moral, social and economic circuits of exchange and regimes of values shape the strategies and mobilities of the poor and even the emergent middle class in post-apartheid South Africa. The book tells of the dynamics of internal movement and double-rootedness as a persistent feature of social life in southern Africa. 

To comprehend the contemporary dynamics of urbanisation, economic development, and health and welfare provision among the poor in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is critical that we focus on Polanyi’s oft-overlooked but crucial insights on the social embeddedness of economics as well as Henrietta Moore’s critical interventions on the socio-cultural dynamics of social reproduction. It is also in times like these that the hidden human economy suddenly becomes more visible. 

Trans-locality development in Africa

Against this background, the apparent failure of the South African government to develop policies and programmes that are responsive and attuned to the promotion of a “people’s science” and the persistent practice of trans-locality in South Africa lies at the heart of the current contestation among provinces over the movement of people. Steinbrink and Niedenführ (2020) make this point more generally for Africa in their new book, Africa on the Move, which urges African governments and development agencies generally to plan with, rather than against, the realities of trans-locality. 

The absence of any formal recognition of such movement and its contribution and importance in people’s lives and livelihood struggles in South Africa makes it difficult for the government to develop mechanisms to manage and direct flows of people and resources across provincial boundaries safely and strategically. Hopefully, the issue of trans-locality and development will receive more serious attention in national and regional development policy and planning in future, while more effort is made to appreciate the everyday logics and dynamics of the human or popular economy in Africa. DM

Leslie Bank is a research director in the Inclusive Economic Development Unit at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa; and professor of social anthropology at Walter Sisulu University. He is a co-editor of a new volume on South African migration dynamics entitled Migrant Labour after
Apartheid: The Inside Story (HSRC Press, 2020).


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options