The South African population is very mobile, and internal migration processes shape almost all facets of society. According to official estimates, between 2001 and 2011 about 5.4 million people moved their place of residence across administrative borders, but still within South Africa. However, since people usually do not register their change of address, the actual amount of internal migration is surely much higher. The processes of internal migration also continue to be impacted by the history of Apartheid. The current migration patterns and the distribution of internal migration movements are the legacy of racial segregation, homeland policies, and the migrant labor system. The largest group of internal migrants in South Africa are people who leave their place of residence in search of employment opportunities. A minority of these internal migrants is from the urban, well-educated, (White) middle and upper classes and moves with the entire family, usually to a higher status job. However, the large majority of internal migrants in South Africa comes from the most structurally disadvantaged (rural) areas in the former Homelands. In these peripheral regions, characterized by poverty and unemployment, many people still face existential precariousness, even after 20 years of democracy. Labor migrants usually try to find employment in South Africa’s various urban-industrial centers, especially the affluent provinces Western Cape and Gauteng. This migration from the former Homelands rarely leads to long-term migration or to the resettlement of the rest of the family. In many cases the rest of the family stays in the region of origin because they lack the financial resources and want to minimize the economic risk of migration. Circular and temporary migration are characteristic for these migration movements.
A considerable proportion of the poorest population groups in South Africa organizes and secures its livelihood these days in social contexts which stretch across large distances. These ways of life, based upon informal, long-distance social networks, remittances, and the multi-local distribution of tasks are referred to as translocal livelihoods. These migration movements create demographic problems which negatively affect growth in rural regions. A majority of the employable population emigrates. Especially young, innovative people go to the cities with the hope of finding more favorable conditions to make the most of their labor power. Those who stay are usually children, women, and old people. The consequences are a severe loss of productivity in small-farmer agriculture as well as a complete dependence upon remittances, which are mainly used for everyday consumption. This clearly hinders independent economic growth in the regions of the former Homelands, such that the existing social and economic disparities are not mitigated, but rather continuously reproduced or intensified.
Internal migration movements between the peripheral, rural regions and the urban centers reveal that in the “New South Africa” a migrant labor system continues to exist. What has changed is the way it is organized. The system is no longer based upon direct state influence and racist repression, but rather a political-economic context within which old inequalities are reproduced. The formal system of recruiting labor has been replaced by an informal system, in which access to jobs, living space, and essential areas of social security is organized through social networks of internal migration. This system is no longer run by the institutional force of the state, but rather by the self-organization and rational action of free actors, at least in the juridical sense, even if their real opportunities are limited in many ways.
As opposed to assumptions commonly held by the public and presented in the media, there is much more internal migration than international migration. However, there is no exact data to demonstrate this. The strong influx of people and the high frequency of internal migration mobility are enormous challenges for many local authorities which need to provide their residents with public infrastructure and living space. Due to the lack of data, local administrations scarcely have an overview of the living conditions and needs of a large proportion of their residents. Without state assistance, migrants have difficulties accessing social, political, and cultural institutions, and this leads to recurrent spells of strong public dissatisfaction. In order to improve the situation, it would be necessary, for instance, to strengthen the cooperation between the administrative offices within and between different regions.
This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile South Africa.