Monday, 2 November 2015

Migration in southern Africa – a visit to the City of Migrants

by Eva-Maria Egger

I spent three weeks in July and August this year in South Africa visiting researchers at the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as part of an exchange program funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It gave me the opportunity to work with the data from the Migrating out of Poverty household survey collected in Zimbabwe earlier this year, while I was in the region which many of the migrants in the survey chose as their destination. But around this academic experience I also had the chance to see the two largest cities of the country and meet people who live and chose to live in them.

When you go to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg you can see historical documents illustrating the history and presence of immigration to Johannesburg and South Africa from all over the world. Johannesburg, the City of Gold, is also the City of Migrants. In the past the discovery of gold attracted many people from within and outside the country’s borders to come to Johannesburg and build a new life. Today vast economic opportunities attract the migrants. Not only can you see the factories and office buildings of various international companies in the city, but also a wide range of African shops run by people from all over the continent. This international mix, in combination with high unemployment among South Africans, was the backdrop to the violent xenophobic outbreaks after the World Cup in 2010. However, the City of Johannesburg and many academic and civil society actors are determined to change these attitudes.

Migrating out of Poverty partner the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) is partaking in ‘myth busting’ projects. All around the city you can hear stories about buses full of pregnant Zimbabwean women arriving daily in Johannesburg to give birth and stay in South Africa. There is little truth to such tales, but belief in them is strong, and politicians do not shy away from feeding into anti-immigrant attitudes similar to those we read daily in European news about ‘benefit tourists’. On one day I witnessed these attitudes first hand. I had visited a social project for children and youth in a township of Pretoria with a social worker from Rwanda. She has built this project together with a friend of mine. She and her family have lived in South Africa for more than 10 years now. We took a minibus back to the city and the driver started speaking in Afrikaans to me until we explained that I was just visiting and did not speak Afrikaans. His reaction was rather cold when asking me where I was from and what I was doing in South Africa, but still polite. Then, however, he turned to my Rwandan companion and asked her with a very suspicious undertone, where she was from and what she was doing in South Africa. I could feel the tension in the air, she felt threatened. So she replied with a lie, saying that she, too, was just visiting with me.

On the other hand, the City of Johannesburg is actively seeking to improve the situation of immigrants, be it international or internal, unskilled or skilled. The Business Union of South Africa is actively involved in anti-xenophobia campaigns, because businesses are looking for workers with skills which often they cannot find among South African workers. Many foreign business people I talked to told me that they were eager to hire South Africans, but in the end hired someone from Zimbabwe or other countries, because they were just better equipped with the skills the employer needed. Thus, the city recognizes that the integration efforts have to aim equally at internal migrants from rural parts of the country as well as at international immigrants to give them access to services and legal working opportunities.

Around 85% of migrants entering South Africa come from the Southern African Development Community. Most taxi drivers in Johannesburg I talked to came from different parts of the country or the continent. This puts the European media news stories on the ‘masses’ of immigrants from Africa with their suggestion that Europe is the dream destination for migrants from the African continent, into perspective. To me it seems that South Africa is the number one destination for many African migrants and the city of Johannesburg alone welcomes thousands of immigrants from within and outside the country every month. As the Mayor says, “This is not merely a challenge, but also an opportunity”.

And many people see and take this opportunity. Numerous artists, designers, musicians choose Jozi as their place of inspiration. Long ignored and run-down areas of the city are re-discovered and re-populated by businesses. Kids and youth speak at least three languages because they grow up surrounded by people from different parts of the country or the continent. Students at the famous University of Witwatersrand come from all over the country and the world. Many also hope to return to their origins and make a difference there, using the skills they learned and building on the networks they established in the City of Migrants.

Johannesburg, City of Migrants


Eva Maria Egger is a doctoral candidate in Economics at the University of Sussex, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Findings from the household survey that Eva-Maria worked on are published in the new working paper, Migrating out of Poverty in Zimbabwe, by Vupenyu Dzingirai, Eva-Maria Egger, Loren Landau, Julie Litchfield, Patience Mutopo and Kefasi Nyikahadzoi, which is available on the Migrating out of Poverty website.

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