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The relationship between migration and poverty in Southern Africa

2. Migration and poverty defined

Although the two concepts seem too commonplace to require defining, they often conjure different meanings among a variety of users. That the concepts appear in the work of different experts and non-experts partly explains why they are easily misinterpreted or treated as a given.

Simply defined, “migration” is the spatial mobility or geographic mobility of population that involves a change of usual place of residence (van de Walle, 1982). Defining it requires identification of boundaries across which movements take place, duration of such movements, knowledge of the moves but not necessarily reason for their movement. In Southern Africa, it is meaningful to underpin international migration, which takes place across national boundaries that, having been arbitrarily drawn and being porous, unpoliced and unpolicable, slot people in political territories that have nothing to do with strong cultural bonds. Note should be taken of different types of international migration: permanent settlers; labour (unskilled/semi-skilled, highly educated/skilled professional transients) undocumented, illegal or clandestine; and refugees and asylum seekers. As no condition is by no means watertight, an earlier analysis of migration and poverty in Southern Africa in the SARPN workshop series identifies skilled contract (within mining and agricultural sectors) and undocumented migration, which subsume specific typologies of movement. It highlights the relationship between migration and salient regional issues such as trade, health/disease and poverty as well as poverty alleviation (Peberdy and Oucho, 2000). The evidence provided by that paper is not strong because detailed research has not been carried out on interrelationship between migration and these phenomena. Therefore, a subject like migration, which is studied across the sciences and humanities and engaging the attention of varied interests requires that its definitional terrain is well ploughed before it is analysed. Moreover, a number of studies acknowledge the fact that a majority of communities in Southern Africa share a common history, cultural heritage, language, religion and other social bond that transcend national boundaries and that sustain clandestine migration (Matlosa, 2000)

Definition of poverty can be most elusive given its complexity and niche at different levels in society. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 1998:16) provides six definitions as follows:

  • Human poverty denotes the lack of essential human capabilities, such as being literate or adequately nourished.


  • Income poverty means the lack of minimally adequate income or expenditure.


  • Extreme poverty is indigence or destitution, usually specified as the inability to satisfy even minimum food needs.


  • Overall poverty refers to a less severe level of poverty, usually defined as the inability to satisfy essential non-food as well as food needs, the former varying considerably across countries.


  • Relative poverty is poverty defined by standards that change across countries or overtime—in terms of mean per capita income—and often used loosely to mean overall poverty.


  • Absolute poverty is defined by a fixed standard, e.g. the international “$1 a day” poverty line, which permits comparison of poverty across different countries, or a poverty line whose real value stays the same over time in order to determine changes in poverty in one country.


In Southern Africa where wealth (the opposite of poverty) is measured in terms of the number of wives and children, farms, cattle, cash or cash-equivalent income, it is inadvisable to assume that poverty conveys the same meaning in different countries or even at different levels of the society in any particular country. To simplify our interpretation, we take the term “poverty” as a given and apply the different strands of it according to its relationship with migration that is being analysed. Of the six definitions of poverty, “extreme poverty” seems to be the odd one out because migration literature informs us that extremely poor people never migrate and that migration often tends to ameliorate economic and social conditions of poor people, communities or countries.

Another way to simplify our interpretation is to divide Southern African countries along, on the one hand, migration and, on the other, poverty spectrum. The countries consist of the net immigration countries of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia that are wealthier in natural resources than the rest of the countries that, while poorly endowed in natural resources, are richer in human resources. The compatibility between resource–rich migrant–receiving countries and resource–poor migrant–sending countries sustains efforts to resolve problems surrounding the migration—poverty interrelationship.

We present two theses: that poverty causes migration to ensure a minimal standard of survival and that migration, in some instances, causes poverty among migrants, in others alleviates poverty or discriminates poverty alleviation between migrant/migrant households and no-migrant/no-migrant households.

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