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The relationship between migration and poverty in Southern Africa

4. Thesis two: Migration causes and alleviates poverty

This thesis examines the other side of migration poverty interrelationship. A plethora of literature on the influence of migration on poverty underlines its positive impact. However, Dodson (1998:25) cautions that:

“The impact of migration is difficult to assess in any absolute or objective sense, especially by those actually involved. Not only does it touch on virtually, every aspect of life, but it present on combination of costs and benefits that are not easy to disentangle… How, for example, does one calculate the benefit of economic gains obtained at the social cost of disrupted family lives?”
This statement has an important message: that a balanced view of the impact (a difficult phenomenon to measure) is necessary.

4.1 Negative Effects of Migration

For the traditional suppliers of unskilled labour to Southern African and national economies, emigration had adverse effects on families and national economies. Emigration denuded families of heads of households who wielded all controls on family socio-economic welfare, young able-bodied males who could help in the development of rural areas, including providing farm labour and social disruption for formerly cohesive family units. These consequences precipitated poverty at the household and community levels, which culminated in under–development at the national level. Indeed, recruitment of young unskilled labour curtailed educational ambitions of youth, in the process of perpetuating low educational attainment, which denied the labour-exporting countries opportunities to improve human resource development.

Selectivity of males in Southern Africa’s labour market has produced an increasing population of female-headed households and single parenthood, which tend to adversely affect family welfare. As women are disempowered in practically all family and community decision-making even while their spouses stay away for several years, they are compelled to become liabilities in their societies. They have no powers to cultivate crops, rear and sell livestock without the men’s approval, and this leads to impoverishment hence women’s desire also to emigrate or out-migrate from their areas to urban areas in-country.

Surprisingly—and depending the question asked—equal proportions of males and females interviewed in a SAMP study perceived the impact of migration on them to be positive, on their families, on their communities and on their countries (Dodson, 1998:26). While such responses are informative, they cannot claim to be representative because the respondents do not know perceptions of communities and countries.

Emigration of unskilled labour has led to stagnation of agriculture in rural areas in countries of origin, causing food shortages and declines in both production sale of commercial crops and plunging the communities into deeper poverty. In Lesotho, large herds of cattle bought from remittances led to overgrazing and soil erosion, consequently causing poverty instead of wealth (Russell et al. 1990:89). The same could be true of Swaziland. In this country and true to the rest of Southern African countries, migration tends to engender a vicious circle of mutual support between the modern capitalist sector and the traditional rural sector. Rural production does not adequately support subsistence, nor are wages at places of employment sufficient to meet the needs of the families left behind(de Vletter et al.1981:720.

Finally, the policy of “internationalisation” of mine labour curtailed the flow of migrants’ remittances and deferred pay, plunging migrants into the abyss of poverty in countries such as Malawi(Chirwa,1997), Swaziland, Mozambique and Lesotho.

4.2 Positive Effects of Migration

The argument that migration has contributed to development in countries of origin dominates the literature. Studies of migrants since the 1940s in Malawi—Zambia area, in South Africa and research undertaken by the International Labour Organisation (Bohning, 1981) and SAMP (since 1997), there is overwhelming evidence of the positive contribution of migration, including its alleviation of rural poverty.

Both remittances and deferred pay prove this point. Emigration has been a means of improving the migrants’ life and their families’ welfare. That only 10 percent of Basotho miners sent money home through their employers by the 1970s suggests that the bulk of remittances was by other means. A substantial proportion (about 60 percent) of migrants’ deferred pay was not touched by the employer or their families until their return(Gordon,1981:120). For a long time remittances to Lesotho represented between 25 and 50 percent share of the GNP; in 1994 above Basotho miners remitted R162 million in compulsory deferred pay and a further R168 million voluntarily (World Bank, 1998:66; Sechaba Consultants, 1997), and in Lesotho, Botswana and Malawi remittances increased herds of cattle as well as crop production (Russell, et al. 1990:24). Between 1992 and 1994 compulsory deferred pay of Mozambican miners in South Africa increased from R156 million to R200 million compared with voluntary remittances which increased from R5 million to R21 million in the same period. Both remittances thus increased from R161 million in 1992 to R222 million in 1994(de Vletter, 1998:15) Malawian returned min workers boasted of having TEBA radios, watches and grocery shops, TEBA (The Employment Bureau for Africa)- the recruiting agency being the foundation upon the migrants built. Improved rural housing and investments in rural micro-enterprises were other development undertakings (Chirwa,1997:634-5). In January 1995, TEBA headquarters in South Africa reported that R1.3 million was paid to the Malawi government as the returned migrants’ pension and retrenchment benefits (TEBA, 1995, quoted in Chiwa, 1997:646-7). The message from these statistics and accounts is loud and clear: remittances have contributed significantly to southern Africans labour suppliers, and without them rural poverty would have been greater. With the reduction of the number of Basotho, Swazi, Mozambican and Malawian min workers in South Africa, remittances have been dealt a serious blow and these mineworkers’ countries denied the surest source of income.

It is not surprising that South Africa, since majority rule in 1994, has embarked on a policy of making investments in the traditional labour-supplying countries, in the whole of SADC and elsewhere in Africa. The assumption is that by investing in other countries, South Africa would create employment opportunities and stem the flow of all types of immigrants from the rest of Africa. Yet such a policy is flawed because the numbers likely to be employed in South African—initiated investments are likely to be too small to make any impact on employment creation.

Apart from remittances, migrants have also spearheaded development in their countries of origin. They have purchased agricultural implements to modernise agriculture, acquired new skills to deploy on return, expanded the international market for goods from their countries and showed glimpses of the advantages of regional integration. Nonetheless, these positive developments, which have contributed to poverty alleviation, are being threatened by xenophobia in the countries of immigration—a response likely to curtail the gains already made. As Southern Africa is a highly mineralised region and SADC is fast integrating the member states, it is to be expected that internal migration will assume greater importance than previously, involving return migrants as well as prospective emigrants.

4.3 Policy implications

SAMP research has revealed some important perspectives of international migration, which interrelate with poverty in Southern Africa. As opposed to the ILO research (Bohning, 1981), it delves into issues beyond just mine workers—issues such as the impact of “internationalisation” on migration to South Africa; immigration into all Southern African states and the citizens perceptions of and attitudes to it as well as immigrant groups; the migrants’ comparison of good vis-а-vis bad things in their countries vis-а-vis countries impact of migration at origins and destinations; of immigration; and policy implications of all these. The SAMP research initiative provides impetus for systematic research on migration and poverty. Better still, SAMP and SARPN should undertake collaborative research on migration and poverty, investigating the interrelationship at individual, family, community, national and regional levels. Available research findings do not provide us with answers that such a collaborative would do.

Research, discourse and policy making on the two phenomena must of necessity underpin the interrelationship between migration and poverty. One or the other perspective is riddled with prejudice, biased measures and interpretations likely to produce spurious results. Researchers should collect good quantitative and qualitative data, which should be subjected to more rigorous analytical techniques than intuitive interpretation as we have done in this discussion. The latter is inevitable where data do not permit statistically robust techniques. In addition, carefully selected qualitative techniques can provide useful insights into issues that require interpretation of broad perspectives rather than accurate measurement. A combination of qualitative and qualitative analyses is even better, yet it is tricky unless properly executed. Discourse based on research findings can only be balanced if analyses of research results are balanced. Unfortunately, statements by the political establishment perpetuate rhetoric at the expense of the situation of ground; to say the least, the statements are unfounded simply because they ignore research results or come before any research is ever undertaken. Policy making suffers the same fate because often it is based on outdated data—and in some cases none at all. In the next few years, policy makers will have to revisit their stand by commissioning research on migration and poverty whose results would form the basis for meaningful policy making. Again, SAMP and SARPN are already on the ground to be of service to policymakers in Southern Africa.

All Southern African countries suffer from one or so aspect of poverty: in terms of income measured by GDP or GNP, human resources and so on. Definitions of poverty provided in this paper confirm this fact. It is therefore, inadvisable for anyone country or a group of countries to discriminate against others whenever migration reflects the various types of inequality. A better move would be bilateral arrangements between any two countries affected and multilateral initiatives under the auspices of SADC. As migration and poverty are dynamic, their magnitude, causes and effects should be monitored at all times to keep abreast of changing circumstances. Historical facts, while useful as a backdrop to appreciate current circumstances, are anachronistic and discordant with current efforts to analyse the ramifications of migration and poverty in Southern Africa. Since the formation of SADC, Southern Africa is a new entity with a new vision and spirit to foster regional integration and to play a key role in the whole of Africa.

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