I embarked for Limpopo on 12th April on a personal journey to visit my grandparents. At the back of my mind I was cognisant of the fact that many far-reaching lessons had to be drawn from this first time experience. Being a province situated at the North Eastern corner of South Africa and sharing borders with Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique; I knew that the journey to Limpopo was going to be a long and rough one. 400 kilometres of pothole infested tar was not a joke, especially while sitting in the back of my sister’s truck.
We left Johannesburg at around 10:00am and during the drive I delighted myself to a healthy chat with my brother. Both of us had expectations of what rural Limpopo looked and felt like; imaginations we had created for ourselves from the stories of witchcraft and backwardness we had constantly heard about the province. I pictured the surreal images of goblins running around and a dense population of poverty stricken people, which was not the reality. We had barely driven for 30 minutes when we stopped. My sister, who was driving, had not informed us that we were also going to pick up our aunt who lives in Mamelodi Pretoria, situated in the Northern parts of Gauteng Province. Her house was one of the conventional tin shacks that most South African rural migrants are accustomed to. She gave us a warm welcome and repeatedly made reference to her shack as her “beautiful city home” and how we should always feel free to visit. This was, after all, home to her, I thought. She had a lot of possessions that she wanted us to load into the truck and take to Limpopo with us. She also owns a house in Limpopo and seasonally she returns home after accumulating some income and new possessions. These possessions included plastic chairs, carpets, a table and sacks full of all sorts of things. The tin shacks were indeed small so it only made sense to send these things back home where they were most needed and utilised.
Having loaded the back of the truck, we squeezed ourselves back in. It was quite clear to me that this was going to be an uncomfortable journey. My aunt also joined us at the back with her husband, to my uttermost surprise, given the little space available. Despite this, we made our way to the freeway to Limpopo, which we then deviated from and headed onto a bumpier strip road after 40 kilometres of driving. Along the way, we compared city life to the rural areas and Aunt Maggie was very open and forthcoming about her migratory life. “The reason I carry these things back home is because my neighbour is a thief”, she explained out. I laughed at the thought but her seriousness constrained my laughter. She really meant it and the only reason she was moving all these possessions was because it was unsafe to leave them in the tin shack. This nomadic behaviour was the story of her life: she would do this every single time she thought of visiting home; carry her belongings and go. I was shell shocked at the very idea of such a life but such was hers. All this sacrifice was in the name of migrating for work and sending remittances to the family back home.
At around 4pm, we were neared Limpopo and now I could clearly see that my idea of the place was far from reality. There was a well built taxi rank opposite the main grocery shops, just along the Johannesburg highway. The only difference was that I could now see the cows and smell the countryside air, fed by the fresh scent of cow dung. The sign “Welcome to Zebediela” was a reminder of where we were now. On our short drive to the house, Maggie’s husband Sipho began to explain to us how stands and houses were actually more affordable here than in the cities. Mostly they would sell for as low as 1000 Rand (£56.39) to local people. The houses were so big and spacious that for a moment I even forgot where I was. Finally we arrived at their house.
We offloaded the truck after being warmly welcomed by Aunt Maggie’s last born daughter and the grandchildren she took care of, then we went into the house. It was an electrified house with 8 rooms and 2 garages. There was also running water and almost everything one would expect to find in a city home. This was very different from the lifestyle in Johannesburg to which I was accustomed, especially the vast amount of space available. Johannesburg was home to more people than space but this was a very different scenario. I even wondered why anyone would leave such a beautiful house for the hustle and squalor of Johannesburg and Pretoria. What shocked me the more was the juxtaposition between the tin shack Aunt Maggie lived in Pretoria and the beautiful house I was sitting in at that moment. She owned it and all the possessions we had come with was offloaded and put to good use in the house.
Most of my questions were answered by our visit to one of my Granny’s houses. It was there that I realised that the reason people migrated from these rural areas to the city was that here, there was no economy to talk about. People did not farm at all, due to the dry and hot climate in the province, not to mention the infertile land. There were not enough resources to sustain rural life, coupled by the non-industrious environment. Only a few people with entrepreneurial skills managed to open vegetable markets in the taxi rank while some worked in the bars and bottle stores, not forgetting those that took to sex work. But all these businesses heavily relied on remittances sent from the city for their survival. People were therefore left with no alternative but to migrate and seek monetary income elsewhere.
Interestingly, not all members of the family migrate. Some (usually the grandparents) still remain to take care of the grandchildren, and the youth (25-40 years of age) are the ones who mostly go to the city in search of work. This I concluded from mere observation and some input from my newly found friend Wellington, who is also a migrant worker. These migrants often invest more in their rural homes than in the city by sending back remittances in order to increase their material wealth, societal prestige and livelihood. This accounts for why Aunt Maggie prefers living in a shack and forking out as little as 300 rand (£16.91per month) for rent in the city, while utilising much of her income on extending and maintaining her house back home. I also noticed how food prices are much lower than those of the city, which makes Maggie’s income much more useful at home than in the city.
Aunt Maggie’s story is not unique, neither is it representative of the whole South African rural-urban migrants. I am, however, convinced that it is enough to give us a sense of how rural migrants behave in order to improve their lives in a cultural as well as family context. The context of family, in this case, is an important one since most migration decisions are made with them in mind and not in isolation. Gender roles and other demographic factors also contribute to who goes and who stays at home and are often reinforced in the family institution. It would be interesting to carry out an ethnographic study of the Limpopo people in order to capture some of the cultural considerations that migrants take before moving from the rural areas to the city and how these also shape expectations for remittances back home. The story also exposes the benefits of rural-urban migration as a means of providing for a better life back home, without which poverty would prevail. This is migrating out of poverty in practice, life on the move.
*Kudakwashe Vanyoro is the current Research, Communications and Outreach Intern at the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium. Read Kuda's profile.