Southern African Migration and Xenophobia

A Presentation to the SAPES Policy Dialogue Forum

By Takura Zhangazha

Thursday 30 April 2015

Cde Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Let me begin by thanking the SAPES Policy Dialogue Forum for inviting me to share my thoughts on issues to do with African migration and xenophobia.  I have changed the topic slightly in order to better suit our regional context by making reference to Southern Africa.  I have however written on the issue of the perilous exodus of our African brothers and sisters to Europe for the continental news website

The topic under discussion when one takes into account recent and tragic incidences of
xenophobia in South Africa becomes not only relevant but urgent and serious for the region.

This is because the statements coming from South African President Zuma concerning the cause and effect of xenophobia in his country will have far reaching connotations for migration in the region.  Mainly because his statements laid primary claim to south African ‘exceptionalism’ after he accused neighbouring governments of causing increased influxes of their citizens to his country due to bad governance. By implication, this can be interpreted to mean that such a similar accusation cannot be pointed at his own country.

Statements also made by the current chair of SADC, Zimbabwean President Mugabe who used the ‘bright lights’ syndrome by explaining that emigrants to South Africa tend to view Johannesburg as the ‘urban’ have not helped either. By inference, this would mean that the rest of the region should be perceived as a rural backwater. An assertion which does not reflect reality nor  adequately explain why we are in this current conundrum.

It is these two responses of Presidents Zuma and Mugabe that must give cause for reflection beyond collective condemnation of the tragic xenophobic attacks. Knee jerk responses, closing of borders, harassment of travelers will only alleviate symptomatic challenges around the issue which does not appear to be showing signs of long term dissipation.

As has been cited by a number of academic and specialist human geographers, migration is an historical fact of Southern Africa. While it has been analysed in terms of pre-colonial Africa, the greatest volume of studies on the same subject, are for Africa’s postcolonial period.  Not least because the colonial era saw marked increases in migration through forced resettlements but also introduced what academic Deborah Potts refers to as ‘circular migration’ in sub-Saharan Africa.  This term refers largely to the lack of permanence in the migratory patterns of peoples across borders.

Causes and theoretical explanations for such migration cut across historical, political and economic spheres of analysis.  Theoretically they are also structuralist (modernization), radical (Marxian) and ethnographic. The  common motivation for people crossing borders in all of these instances is economic or related to the political economy of a specific period and time. From colonialism through to post independence economic structural adjustment programmes, political conflict (refugees and forced departure) and individual pursuit of better livelihoods over time.

What is beyond dispute is that migration in Africa is not only an historical fact of our lived realities but it continues to inform our regional cultural, political economic livelihoods. In other words, in and of itself, migration is not a problem.  Mainly because the legacies or direct effects of its causes are still amongst us today.

But herein lies the problem.  That we are still grappling with these issues is an indictment on our inability to address the key legacies of colonialism and inorganic post-colonial leadership.  Not for a lack of trying but more for a lack of collective effort and consistency. Tremendous efforts have been made to deal with continental development challenges through the transformation of the OAU into the AU and the launch of NEPAD.

These efforts are however falling short of their intended objectives let alone their expecting beneficiaries.

Especially where one considers the contemporary continued gravitation to the in similar fashion to that established by the Witwatersand Native Labour Association (WENELA (minus the infamous ‘Chibaro’ system.)

The luring factor of the South African economy is, as was the case when our forefathers/mothers  trekked the forests or got on the railway wagons toward ‘egoli’, remains apparent.

The only marked difference is that in the same country of destination we are no longer all Africans in relation to the political consciousness of the anti-colonial struggle era.  That country now has its own citizens who have a greater sense of entitlement to what their country has to offer  them as opposed to what it can give the rest of us as Africans’

This means therefore, they cannot be expected to assume their country is the repository of the region’s economic challenges, even despite the historical liberation solidarity that we all share.  This is because while the past is important to acknowledge and analyse, it unfortunately is not the sole determinant of a better future for all Southern Africans.

What is required is a holistic understanding of the causes for both the migration and its violent domestic resistance in the destination country.

This would mean that all SADC countries, if they can have agreement on industrialization roadmaps must clearly have agreements on minimum standards of social service delivery to their people in tandem greater commitment to democratic values and principles.  It would entail a shift from blunt neo-liberal and state capitalist frameworks as dictated by either western or eastern financial institutions all of which have led to the failure to localize the regional political economy for people centered development in Southern Africa.  The result of which has been the retrogressive bifurcation of the region and continent by rampant global capital and the tragic pitting of brother against brother, sister against sister for a pittance share of the pie.

Furthermore, it would entail increasing the popular legitimacy of regional and continental bodies together with their programmes beyond inorganic summits of heads of state and government which are viewed more as events than serious policy discussion platforms by the people of the continent.

To conclude, there are a multiplicity of reasons as to why migration and resistance to it in Southern Africa are becoming an thorn in the flesh of the liberation struggle’s progressive legacies.  These include the impact of colonialism on African societies the inorganic leadership of  the region on real matters by our post independence leadership and the elite nature of our regional and continental institutions.  It is easy to argue that all of these are work in progress, but the sad truth is that there is little to show, apart from the historical legacy of our liberation struggles.

As the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral once wrote, ‘“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

If for once, SADC and African leaders understood this, especially from a regional perspective, then perhaps African migration, in whatever form, would be more welcome and not dehumanizing as it appears to be today.


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