David McDonald, Lovemore Zinyama, John Gay, and Fion de Vletter

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 7

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Although a more balanced debate about cross-border migration in South Africa is starting to take place, xenophobic stereotypes about migrants of African origin are still all too common. Allusions to a "flood of illegal aliens" who bring disease and crime to the country and who are seen to be a threat to the social and fiscal stability of South Africa are, unfortunately, still rife in the mainstream press.

This paper is an attempt to challenge some of these stereotypes. Drawing on national surveys conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, we argue that much of the negative stereotyping of around cross-border migration from the region into South Africa is simply unfounded. Our interviews present a very different picture of the migration process (past, present and future) with some important implications for immigration policy and public education.

There are six stereotypes that we deal with in particular, and these are summarized as follows:

Myth #1: Every poor and desperate person on the African continent wants to get into South Africa.

Reality: The results of our surveys show that by and large people from the region prefer their home country to South Africa. On almost every front - with the important exceptions of job opportunities, costs of living and availability of health care - the home country was perceived equal to or better than South Africa. Despite the popular notion that South Africa is the most desirable place to live on the continent, the majority of those interviewed identified their home country as a better place to raise a family, with access to basic resources like land, water, and housing being the most important reasons. Levels of crime and safety were also seen to be much better at home, and even South Africa’s much vaunted democratic reforms would appear to carry little weight with people in the region with over two-thirds of respondents saying that they find "peace", "freedom" and "democracy" to be as good, or better, in their home country as in South Africa.

Myth #2: People are jumping the borders in their millions using whatever means necessary to get into South Africa.

Reality: The surveys suggest that the movement across the South African border is not nearly as corrupt or chaotic as one might expect from press coverage in the country. Well over 90% of the people interviewed who had visited South Africa in the past crossed the border at formal immigration posts using formal modes of transportation (eg. bus, train, car). Moreover, 89% of these respondents had official passports from their home country before entering South Africa and 72% had the appropriate South African visa. Admittedly, this means that a significant number of people are still crossing the border without proper documentation, but once again the figures are not nearly as high as one would suspect from anecdotal reports in the press.

Myth #3: People from the region "flood" to South Africa to find work or to use health and other social services.

Reality: Although jobs and access to services play an important part of what pulls people to South Africa, people also go to the country to visit friends and family, to buy and sell goods, and for holidays. The assumption that social, political and economic chaos at home pushes people to South Africa is also misleading. In fact, people from the region are largely satisfied (on a comparative basis) with their situation at home and it should not be assumed that jobs in South Africa means that people are willing to uproot and move to another country.

Myth #4: Cross-border migration has largely negative implications for the source country.

Reality: Generations of scholarly research has demonstrated the largely negative effects that the migrant labour system in Southern Africa has had on personal health, family relations and macro-economic stability in countries in the region. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to discover that the overwhelming majority of respondents (both men and women) said that they consider cross-border migration to have a positive effect on them personally, on their family, on their community and on their home country. This is not to dispute the fact that cross-border migration has many negative implications for people and countries in the region, but the data do raise some counter-intuitive questions about attitudes towards, and experiences with, cross-border migration.

Myth #5: Governments and people in the region expect South Africa to throw opens its doors to whoever wants to enter.

Reality: Citizens of Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe would like to see a relaxation of border regulations and consider it a "basic human right" to be able to move from one country to another, but they do not expect the South African government to abandon border controls altogether. Most people would like to see policies in place which make it easier to move from one country to another, and many question the legitimacy of borders that were created during the colonial era, but they do not advocate a radical dismantling of current borders. Even more important, a majority feel that the South African government should be able to restrict the number of (im)migrants allowed into the country and that they should also have the right to deport people. They would like to see the South African government define these restrictions and categories in a humane and rational manner, but do not reject the idea of selective (im)migration and do not expect the government of South Africa to grant amnesty to every non-South African currently living in the country.

Myth #6: Conditions in the region are only going to get worse and unless South Africa takes a tougher stand on immigration policy the country will continue to be inundated with "illegal aliens".

Reality: It is impossible to say for sure what the future of migration looks like for Southern Africa given the uncertainties around the broader political and economic context within which cross-border migration will take place but the results of our surveys suggest that the most likely people to go to South Africa are young, single men who have been encouraged by their families to migrate. They are also more likely, relative to other respondents, to possess documents permitting such migration, to have some education, to have family in South Africa, and to have been to South Africa before. Nevertheless, the decision to migrate will not be made easily. There are many aspects of life that are deemed to be much better at home than in South Africa, making the decision to migrate ambiguous at best. These are not the kind of circumstances that are associated with people leaving their homes in droves to go to South Africa.

The paper concludes with five policy recommendations, as follows: