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ICT is critically changing how African migrants keep in touch with family and ‘home’

ICT is critically changing how African migrants keep in touch with family and ‘home’
Refugees at the Central Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. 27 January 2020. ICT has been vital for maintaining transnational families. (Photo: Gallo Images/ Brenton Geach)

Information communication technologies have revolutionised the capacity of families to stay together across vast distances.

We often assume that for people to take care of each other, geographical closeness is essential — the traditional understanding of care between family members presupposes physical proximity between these individuals.

This can apply to the hands-on tasks involved in looking after children or caring for elderly relatives or people with disabilities. The challenge of distance becomes notably pronounced for families separated by migration.

Since the advent of the internet in the 1990s, there has been increasing enthusiasm around the possibility that technology might bring about the so-called “death of distance” (Loretta Baldassar, 2007). Consequently, a great part of recent studies on migration has focused on the crucial role of information communication technologies (ICTs) in connecting and maintaining migrant or transnational families (see for example Baldassar).

In some instances, the term “virtual families” (Celia Falicov) has been used to describe the new kinds of families and relationships that are made possible by the use of these multiple technological tools.

There is no doubt that ICTs have revolutionised the capacity of families to stay together across distances. Recent research exploring different aspects of migration patterns in South Africa observed that migrants and their family members all reported some measure of support and reassurance through their ability to connect with family using ICTs, and truly appreciated how much harder it would be to maintain family and support networks without ICTs (Marchetti-Mercer et al, 2020).

However, despite the gains enjoyed from ICT use, we cannot assume that all migrants share the same technological tools, the same level of access to the internet, or even that distance has the same meaning: socioeconomic status can make a considerable difference.

While those international outmigrants who represent the so-called “brain drain” often have easy access to technology and are therefore able to stay connected with their families back home, South Africa is home to highly diverse migratory trends, also including inward and internal mobilities.

Migration patterns and trends

Despite the demise of apartheid in 1994, the “circular” migratory trend between rural and urban areas is still very much evident today as black people still move to urban areas where more economic possibilities are available to them. Consequently, internal migration — even across what may appear rather short distances — remains an important feature of the South African migration landscape.

We are also seeing an increasing influx of migrants from other parts of Africa to South Africa. While there is a historical precedent, this inward movement has escalated since the opening of South Africa’s borders in 1994.

These migrants are a diverse group, ranging from refugees fleeing unstable political and/or economic situations to economic migrants attracted by dreams of employment. Some come from other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and some from other parts of Africa.

Each type of migration has its specificities, and those involved have significantly different life experiences. However, they have one experience in common: the inevitable creation of transnational families whose members are separated by geographical distance, requiring them to try to stay connected despite what at times may feel like insurmountable challenges.

Digital bridges

Before the advent of the internet and the easy availability of mobile phones, migrant families made use mainly of letters and very expensive phone calls to stay in touch with their left-behind family members.

What has changed in recent decades, is the possibility of regular contact between separated family members, which has been greatly increased by the introduction of mobile phone communication. Most people in South Africa do possess mobile phones. According to Statistics South Africa’s general household survey conducted in 2018, a massive 89.5% of South African households exclusively use cellular phones.

However, according to the same survey, only 10.4% of households have internet at home. Household access to the internet at home was highest in the Western Cape (25.8%) and Gauteng (16.7%) and lowest in Limpopo (1.7%).

Although the use of mobile internet access devices in rural areas (45%) still lags behind their use in metro (67.5%) and urban areas (63.7%), it is much more common in rural areas than in any of the alternative ICTs (Statistics South Africa 2018).

However, the cost of data remains very expensive compared to that in First World countries and even some other African countries, making this kind of communication difficult to afford. This constrains people’s access to technology and makes data costs difficult to manage.

Looking at recent research on African transnational families (Marchetti-Mercer, Swartz and Baldassar, 2023), WhatsApp is by far the most popular application used by migrant populations because of the immediacy of the kind of communication that it offers, as well as its relatively low use of data and concurrent costs.

However, even for those who possess a smartphone, buying data is a financial challenge, because in situations of great socioeconomic deprivation, where necessities such as food and rent are more urgent, buying data or airtime becomes a luxury.

Digital access shortfalls

Furthermore, in many of the geographical settings where people live or work, poor network quality and infrastructure limit people’s access to the internet and its benefits. It is an ironic twist that this lack of internet access often forces people to make direct phone calls, which are much more expensive, even though recent international research on migration shows that international phone calls have become considerably cheaper since the 1990s, improving the possibility and frequency of phone calls in migrant families.

However, there is still an uneven distribution of telecommunications infrastructure; in low-income countries such infrastructure is often marginal, so their citizens are at a disadvantage.

For many migrants in the South African context, mobile phones are the only technological tools available, while more affluent migrants have access to other options, including smartphones, laptops, and applications such as Skype, to stay connected to family members.

Even where technology is available, ICT use requires digital competence and literacy. In this regard, the challenges of limited digital citizenship, particularly for older people, are prevalent. Older people generally struggle more with technology, irrespective of socioeconomic differences.

These difficulties are often compounded by physical challenges that older people may face, such as diminished vision and hearing, as well as increasing difficulty with the fine motor skills required to use technology.

While all migrants and their families rely heavily on technology to maintain relationships with their loved ones, their access to technology, suitable devices, and adequate infrastructure, as well as the financial means to maintain ICT use, may differ greatly depending on their socioeconomic status.

Distance and capacity to travel

Visits are also another tool that migrants use to maintain relationships of care, but understandings of distance in the migrant and transnational families may also vary. When looking at those who leave South Africa for other continents, they appear to be the most geographically distant from their loved ones, while those from the rural areas of South Africa who move to urban areas such as Gauteng have the shortest distance to travel.

However, “distance” is relative: depending on their circumstances, people experience it differently. One factor is the capacity to travel — what we might call “mobility capital”. Capacity to travel depends on whether you are affluent or poor, on the resources available, and on constraints imposed by state border regimes, visa requirements, and, more recently, restrictions relating to Covid-19.

Paradoxically the challenges experienced by rural migrants upon entering an urban environment and the difficulties they face in visiting their families in rural areas are similar to the constraints mentioned by migrants leaving South Africa for other continents. The level of cultural alienation and the financial and logistical difficulties related to travel seem very similar, even though rural migrants often move only a few hundred kilometres from their original home, rather than thousands of kilometres.

Consequently, “technology” and “distance” should not be seen as unambiguous terms: what they mean to each individual depends on who that person is and where that person comes from or goes.

When it comes to technology, different types of migrants experience different challenges, which reflect issues of access and affordability that may differ radically from experiences reported in much of the migration research focusing on the Global North, or even from the experiences of middle-class (e)migrants and their families. What has been called the digital divide is very evident in the experiences of African migrants.

While ICTs are essential to maintaining relationships of care across large distances, there are glaring inequities in access to ICTs. Importantly the “freedom to connect to the internet today is also about the right to access care and support networks” (Baldassar, 2016).

Limited access to technology as a means of communication therefore not only constrains access to knowledge and information — recognised by the UN as a human right (La Rue, 2011) — but also constrains migrant families’ capacity to care for each other when they are separated.

Such inequities demand a vigorous advocacy for “digital justice”, a cause that holds particular significance for a nation such as South Africa. DM

This article contains excerpts from the newly published book: Transnational Families in Africa: Migrants and the Role of Information Communication Technologies (WitsPress), Marchetti-Mercer, MC, Swartz, L, & Baldassar, L (Eds) (2023).

This is the first book to capture the stories of transnational African families and their use of ICTs in mediating their experiences of migration and caring across distance. Transnational Families in Africa analyses the highs and lows of family separation as a result of migration in three contexts: migration within South Africa from rural to urban areas; migration from other African countries into South Africa; and middle-class South Africans emigrating to non-African countries. It explores specifically how technology is used to maintain kinship and duties of care from afar. 

Transnational Families in Africa

Transnational Families in Africa, by Maria C Marchetti-Mercer, Leslie Swartz and Loretta Baldassar. (Photo: Supplied)

Prof Maria Marchetti-Mercer is a Professor of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and currently serving as Assistant Dean of Research for the Faculty of Humanities. She served as the Head of the School of Human and Community Development at Wits from 2012-2016. Prior to that, she was the head of the Psychology Department at the University of Pretoria from 2001-2011.


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