Where to From Here? Zimbabwean Migrants and the Future of Southern Africa

By Loren Landau & Tara Polzer · 22 Sep 2008

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Picture credit: blog.foreignpolicy.com
Picture credit: blog.foreignpolicy.com

With Robert Mugabe begrudgingly accommodating Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara at the bridge of Zimbabwe’s sinking ship, there is at last hope that the once proud country will soon find its way to calmer waters.  Although anxious of snags ahead, no one is more relieved than the millions of Zimbabweans both in and outside the country who have suffered through more than eight years of violence, persecution, and economic tragic-comedy.

Cheering almost as loud are Zimbabwe’s neighbours who have long weathered damage to the region’s trade, stability, and international reputation. South Africa’s angry masses will also undoubtedly be rejoicing, pausing only long enough to demand Zimbabwean migrants stop stealing their jobs, houses and women and go back where they rightfully belong. Given widespread and violent attacks against foreigners earlier this year, many Zimbabweans in South Africa will undoubtedly jump at the chance. Those close to South Africa’s presumptive President-elect, the crowd pleasing Jacob Zuma, will likely echo the call to leave, if in more tempered terms: South Africa has limited resources that must be reserved for its own poor and hungry.

But does the recent political settlement really pave the way for a mass return of Zimbabweans? And, indeed, would it be in the interests of South Africa to facilitate or even force such an exodus?

There are few guarantees that the current political deal will not quickly crumble. Given the lack of clarity over who is actually leading the new government, the political crisis is in recess but not yet over. Until a truly stable political settlement is reached, political violence, crippling hunger, and shortages of medicines will continue. Save a miracle, any kind of significant economic recovery is still a long way off. While many Zimbabweans outside the country may return to see family or investigate job opportunities, most will not be able to stay and make a living. Can neighbouring states ethically send people back to a country that remains so unsafe and so poor? And will this really help anyone?

The region needs Zimbabwe to recover. And the greatest hope for economic recovery, or at least survival, will come from Zimbabweans working in South Africa. Even if the billions of promised aid dollars started pouring in—something that is far from certain—it will be years before Zimbabwe’s economy is rebuilt. It will take even longer for the benefits to reach the poor. Meanwhile, remittances from those working in South Africa will continue to protect those who remain behind: paying for food, medicine, and school fees. As the immediate crisis wanes, remittances will be directed to investments in housing and business, helping to provide the sustainable livelihoods within Zimbabwe which will allow more and more people to return home permanently. 

During this reconstruction, the presence of Zimbabweans in South Africa will benefit South Africans. Zimbabweans remain one of Africa’s most educated and industrious citizenries. South Africa desperately needs skills—doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and entrepreneurs—to transform its economy and, in the end, create jobs. Zimbabwean migrants can help fill these gaps. More immediately, the goods that Zimbabweans working in South Africa are sending home to sustain lives and rebuild livelihoods are bought in South Africa and feed domestic markets. Prematurely severing these income streams will only prolong the current economic malaise and promote more migration to South Africa.

Although few may see it amidst more immediate and obvious concerns, South Africa’s response to Zimbabwean migrants will also help determine South Africa’s relations with its neighbours and the future of Southern Africa. Should South Africa try to send Zimbabweans packing, international donors and observers will wonder at the meaning of ‘African solutions to African problems’: the mantra under which Zimbabwe’s political negotiations took place.

The incoming ANC leadership also faces a tough decision about where to lead the country, a problem symbolised by its reactions to migrants from Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The country’s long-term economic and political objectives can only be fulfilled with greater regional integration. This not only means lowering barriers to the free movements of goods, as with the regional free trade area launched in August, but finding the policy tools to create a unified, regional labour market.  But South African politicians and citizens alike continue to see the immigration of people from the region as an inherent threat to the country’s physical and economic security.  This is a mistake.

Making it difficult for Zimbabweans or other foreigners to move and work legally in South Africa promotes a dual labour market that undermines wages and working conditions for citizens. The labour rights of citizens are best protected by ensuring that foreigners working in South Africa can do so with full legal protections. This will level the playing field. A recent bilateral free visa agreement between South Africa and Mozambique has already illustrated potential benefits of facilitating the movements of people between countries in the form of increased trade and reduced corruption at the border.  It also means that the police can concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing. Rather than senselessly rounding up and deporting foreigners—who are unlikely to be criminals but are likely to ride the revolving door—they can concentrate on fighting crime.

Zimbabwe stands at a cross roads; the future of the country rests on political leaders showing foresight and a commitment to long-term and broad-based growth rather than pandering to parochial short-term interests. The question of how South Africa’s leadership manages the question of Zimbabwean migration is a similar litmus test of foresight and commitment: to the stability and prosperity of the region, which is ultimately the basis of the stability and prosperity of South and Southern Africa.  

By Loren Landau and Tara Polzer.  Researchers with the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Read more articles by Loren Landau and Tara Polzer.

This article is distributed by the South African Civil Society Information Service. For information regarding permission to republish this article, please visit the Copyright section of our website.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/169.1.

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Rory Short
29 Sep

Zimbabwean Migrants

There is a political and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. The result is masses of industrious skilled and educated people pouring into our country looking for work we should welcome them with open arms as they will help to uplift our economy and at the end of the day all our citizens will benefit.

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