Monday, 22 September 2014

Survival in the City of Gold

By Kuda Vanyoro
I have never ceased to be fascinated by Johannesburg and the many experiences it has offered me throughout my internship. There are many sides to this beautiful city but not all are delightful. In my opinion, Johannesburg is a place of opportunity where people of different cultures, races and nationalities converge in search of better lives, thus its epithet Egoli (city of gold). In the broad Johannesburg space internal migrants (as presented in my last blog) and international migrants co-exist. Each migration trajectory brings with it varied effects on the culture of the city, which becomes one of struggle for survival. Both internal and foreign migrants are driven by the desire to get employed - formally or informally - in an attempt to extract financial resources for a better livelihood in the city and for remittances to send back home. Stiff competition among internal migrants for these limited resources which are then extended to foreign migrants builds up, resulting in a system that marginalises those who are less skilled and those who demand higher wages from employers. So it is often the locals who suffer in this search for gold that the city promises.
This complex system results in wage-labour conflicts and competition, leaving those who lose out with no alternative but to survive the hard way. This gets me to the central focus of this blog: crime in inner-city Johannesburg. The views expressed here are more of an opinion than an expert analysis, and emerge from my personal experience as I try to draw out lessons and key themes related to the migration and poverty field. On two occasions during my short stay in Johannesburg thus far, I have been a victim of crime. The first encounter was a random amateur mugging on the sidewalk, and the other one was a more professional mugging in the early hours along the streets of Doornfontein. My brushes with crime in the city are, of course, not  unique. I urge the reader not to sympathise with me: I have come to terms with these misfortunes as part of my internship experience and have nothing to shed tears about.
The understanding I have arrived at from my experience is that migration for work in a city like Johannesburg is functional, creating a fairly equitable system of subsistence, better livelihood and economic development in South Africa and the region as a whole. I drove this point home in my previous blog.  However, not everyone benefits. Some are left out due to other variables which are somewhat more academic than I have scope for, but one factor is poor government policy. Most of the migrants who are less well served by the formal labour system turn to informal work such as vending. But what happens to the least well served who are not educationally or skilfully equipped or who simply lack the will or capacity to be entrepreneurs? I am of the conviction that some of these people either return to their original homes, or alternatively they turn to crime, which is a male dominated occupation in this city. Contrary to the claim that external migrants are responsible for most of the crime in Johannesburg, both internal and international migrants are involved,. Even nationals that migrate to the city for better lives may be vulnerable to falling into criminality because the cheaper labour and better skills that foreign migrants offer leads to some locals failing to find jobs. Government policies often ignore such realities, and in the process overlook a vicious cycle that renders South African society hostile and unsafe for everyone. This demonstrates the pertinence of a solid and realistic migration and labour policy for the broader society and everyone’s well-being in the fight for the eradication of poverty.
My unfortunate experiences awakened my curiosity to find out the rational dynamics around migration and crime. I did not manage to talk to a lot of people involved in crime due to the issue’s sensitivity and the lack of a clear cut research agenda, but an informal chat with Mark (not his real name), a local Xhosa man who stays in Berea, was enough to convince me that sometimes crime was a response to the frustrations of unemployment. Although not xenophobic, Mark did attribute his joblessness to the influx of foreign migrants, but not exclusively. He was aware of the government’s central role in job creation, but he alluded to the fact that he had turned to crime (“other means” of livelihood) because of the huge pressures brought to bear on the labour market by both internal and foreign migrants. Maybe it was just his poor excuse for his unruly and deviant behaviour, but nonetheless it should not be totally disregarded.
Again, such mundane stories of migration in a context of poverty pose more questions than answers. I am not aiming to provide answers but to call for critical thinking around the social dynamics of migration and migration’s adverse effects in the absence of efficient and real policies meant for real people. There is much that can be done to alleviate poverty in Southern Africa and one of these things is development of a proper migration and labour policy, without which the poor will continue to suffer the adverse effects of crime and other social ills. Until such a time, the search for a better life and the promise of gold in the city will remain highly contested and unduly competitive.
Johannesburg by night - a site of "other means" of livelihoods

Kudakwashe Vanyoro is the current Research, Communications and Outreach Intern at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium. Read Kuda's profile.