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Results of a public opinion survey contradict popular media claims that a large number of people are crossing the South African border without proper documentation and creating chaos in the country. The survey will be useful for policy makers regarding immigration issues, especially concerning migrants entering from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. (dkc)

vol 13 no 1

Crossed purposes: Migrant attitudes in southern Africa
David McDonald

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 1, November 1997
Page 30
"Southern Africa"



David McDonald teaches at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and is the Project Manager of the Southern African Migration Project.

Most South Africans are proud of the transition that has taken place in their country over the past five years - and rightly so. South Africa in many ways has been an exemplary model of peaceful and democratic change with lessons for other African nations and beyond.

Pride also has its prejudice, however, and most South Africans believe that they live in the best country on the continent. Popular opinion in the country has it that South Africa is the land of `milk and honey' and that every other African in the region is desperate to come and share the wealth and happiness that "Egoli" has to offer. Newspaper headlines in South Africa prominently bemoan what is termed the `flood of aliens' into the country and the crime, disease and chaos that these masses are assumed to bring with them from Africa (as if the rest of Africa were somehow distinct from the southern tip of the continent).

The extent and scale of xenophobia in the country is difficult to determine and there appear to be significant differences across race, class and gender lines on this issue. But it is also clear that there is a strong and widespread concern that South Africa is going to be overrun with illegal migrants from neighbouring countries and that something needs to be done to stem this tide and shore up what are perceived to be extremely porous international borders.

The policy implications of these negative public perceptions are far-reaching. With the South African government currently in the process of revamping its apartheid-era immigration legislation (currently known under the rather ominous title of The Aliens Control Act), anti-immigrant sentiment has the potential to disrupt a rational and more progressive policy-making process.

Part of the problem is the enormous gap in understanding of cross-border migration in the region. A better understanding could support the development of an immigration policy that is more consistent with South Africa's broader commitment to human rights and its prominent role in the Southern African Development Community (see Jonathan Crush's article in SAR Volume 12, Number 1 for an overview of the need for a new immigration policy platform for the region).

It is with these concerns in mind that the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) has launched a series of national public opinion polls in the region on people's attitudes towards migration and migrants and their opinions on possible immigration policies for the future.

One set of these surveys were recently completed with 2,300 people in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the three largest source countries of migration to South Africa. The surveys were done over an eight-month period starting in October of 1996, and represent the most comprehensive surveys on cross-border migration yet conducted in the region.

Key Highlights

It's evident from the survey that not everyone from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe wants to get into South Africa. Despite the popular notion in South Africa that Africans from other parts of the region would do anything to get into the country, an overwhelming number of the people interviewed identified their home country as a better place to raise a family than South Africa. Better access to basic resources like land, water and housing were the most important reasons, but safety and crime levels were also seen to be much more favourable at home. Even South Africa's much vaunted democratic reforms don't seem to have made much of an impression. Over two-thirds of the respondents said they find "peace", "freedom" and "democracy" to be as good, or better, in their home country as in South Africa.

Not surprisingly, job opportunities were deemed far better in South Africa than at home, as were opportunities for buying and selling goods. But this perception of better job opportunities does not necessarily translate into a flood of migration. Only 13% of those interviewed said it was "very likely" they would go to South Africa for a short period of time (up to two years) and only six per cent said that it was "very likely" that they would move to South Africa permanently. Taking into account that an even smaller percentage of these respondents would actually make the move to uproot themselves in order to live in South Africa, the actual number of people wanting to leave their home country is much smaller than one would be led to believe in the press.

Survey results indicate people in the region respect international borders. Contrary to popular opinion in South Africa, people from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe do not simply expect the South African government to throw open the doors to whomever wants to enter the country. With the notable exception of Lesotho (where 41% of those interviewed think the two countries should simply "join under one government"), over three-quarters of the respondents felt the South African government should restrict the number of people allowed into the country and should be able to deport those who commit crimes and/or are in the country without proper documentation. Most of these people would like to see policies in place that make it easier for people to move from one country to another, and many question the legitimacy of borders that were created during the colonial and apartheid era, but they do not advocate a radical dismantling of current border systems.

It would also appear from the surveys that movement across the South African border is not nearly as corrupt or chaotic as one might expect from press coverage in South Africa. Of the 40% of respondents who said that they had been to South Africa, 49% crossed the border by car or combi, 22% by bus, 14% by train and 4% by plane or other formal mode of transportation. Of the remaining 8% that said they crossed the border on foot, most of them took a bus or combi to the border, walked through customs, and then took another bus or combi to their destination in South Africa. In other words, there are relatively few people sneaking into the country under fences or swimming across rivers.

Moreover, 89% of these respondents had official passports from their home country before entering South Africa and 72% had the appropriate South African visa. Although these figures show that a significant number of people are still crossing the border without proper documentation, the figures are not nearly as high as one would suspect from anecdotal reports in the press. (The fact that the majority of respondents without proper visas were from Zimbabwe is partly a product of the fact that it is so difficult and time consuming to get a visa for South Africa in that country).

Based on these findings, the movement of people across the South African border from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe would appear to be a much more formal, moderate and regularized activity than previously thought and the potential to manage cross-border migration in the future may not be as difficult as anticipated. The crude policy dichotomy of "open borders" versus "fortress South Africa" need not be the only options in South Africa, particularly if there is a strong foundation of regularized movement already in place from which to build a more humane and regionally integrated `border management' approach to the issue.

Questions of Gender

There are some important differences between men and women in terms of their personal experiences with cross-border migration which can be highlighted briefly (Women made up 44% of the sample size for a total of 1,012 interviews).

As would be expected, more men have been to South Africa than women, they tend to stay for longer periods of time and they tend to work in more formal, pre-arranged occupations, such as mining and manufacturing. More men claimed to be the head of the household than did women (57% versus 18% respectively), more men claimed to be the person who "makes the final decision as to whether to go to South Africa or not" (57% versus 29% respectively) and more men claimed that they "would be able to go to South Africa if [they] wanted to" (76% versus 61% respectively). The questionnaire did not, unfortunately, capture the dynamics of joint decision making between men and women - often an important part of the decision-making process in African households - but the statistics clearly imply that men are more in control of decision making about cross-border migration than women.

But it is the similarities in men's and women's response that proved to be the most interesting. Despite the very different concrete experiences that men and women have with respect to cross-border migration and the different decision-making process they go through, their attitudes to migration and their perspectives on life in South Africa and at home are remarkably similar.

Almost to a percentage point, women gave the same responses as men on virtually every opinion-based question in the survey. Their perceptions of South Africa, their reasons for going to South Africa (or for not going), their expected treatment by South African authorities and citizens, and their comparisons of South Africa with their home country were almost identical to that of the men interviewed. And although women were slightly less knowledgeable and slightly less sure of themselves in terms of their ability to get into South Africa and to find accommodation and work there, the differences were not that great. Women outlined a similar pattern of family and friends networking in South Africa as did the men, and they expressed a similar understanding of how one lives as a foreigner in South Africa. In other words, women have the same general perceptions of South Africa vis-a-vis their own countries, and they have a very similar sense of what it takes to be a migrant in the Southern African context.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that both men and women were positive about the impacts of cross-border migration, despite their generally negative images of South Africa and despite the largely negative interpretations of the migrant labour system in popular and academic writings. In total, over two-thirds of men and women equally said that migration had a positive or neutral impact on their family, their community and their nation.

Even when asked how migration impacts on "you personally" - a question that might elicit a fairly negative response from women given the impact that the migrant labour system has had on family life in the past - both men and women gave a largely positive response (14% of women said "very positive", 39% said "positive", and 27% said "no impact"). Mind you, 26% of women and 23% of men identified "having an affair" or "having a second family" in South Africa as one of their three main concerns about a family member leaving to work or stay in South Africa.

And finally, the men and women interviewed for these surveys have very similar opinions on what should be done about immigration policy in the region in the future. There's a strong desire to see a relaxation of strict cross-border movement controls, but not necessarily a complete dismantling of the notion of national sovereignty.

Whether these differences and similarities between men and women have any direct policy implications is unclear at this point. Besides a need to give these survey results closer scrutiny and analysis, there is the possibility that women's opinions on cross-border migration are largely shaped by the men in their households. Nevertheless, the data do raise some counter-intuitive questions about women's attitudes to cross-border migration and would appear to challenge the notion that women see migration in a different light than men.


All of this is not to suggest that there are no problems on the South African border or that effective management of cross-border migration is going to be a simple task. Anything but. There is still much to learned about the causes, consequences and dimensions of cross-border migration in Southern Africa and a lot of restructuring to be done within the current immigration system. It is essential, therefore, that South African policy makers and the South African public at large be exposed to a more balanced and more informed debate on this extremely important policy topic. Public opinion surveys do not, in and of themselves, provide a full picture of a very complex phenomenon but they do help academics and policy makers to get a better understanding of what is driving (or not driving) the migration process and what kinds of policy initiatives may be more appropriate and acceptable than others.


A 40 - 50 page analysis of these surveys will be released later this year as part of the SAMP Migration Policy Series. For more details on SAMP please visit the Project website at www.queensu.ca/samp.

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