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December 7, 2012 Comments
Table Mountain in Cape Town (Photo: Margaret Walton-Roberts).

I have just come back from a Migration, Urbanization and Food Security conference in Cape Town, South Africa organized by the African Food Security and Urbanization Network AFSUN. It was impressive —the conference, the location, the local food, wine — but one of the things about Cape Town that I was most impressed by was the service. Anyone who does a fair amount of traveling knows that the nature of service delivery says a great deal about the region you are visiting, as does the ethnic, racial, gender and regional identity of those who provide you this service. As a geographer with an interest in gender, migration and labour markets, I am always interested to learn more about who is providing the majority of labour in the service industry.

In the case of Cape Town, and particularly the waterfront, the place I spent most of my time, the service workers were predominantly young black Africans. They were attentive, articulate, pleasant and efficient. I was so impressed with the nature of service delivery in the bars, restaurants and hotels, that I mentioned it to the conference organizer, Jonathan Crush. He replied “many of them are from Zimbabwe.” “How can you tell?” I asked. “Because they are well educated.” I was intrigued, how is it that a migrant worker population is so easily identifiable and differentiated by their, as Pierre Bourdieu called it, "cultural habitus"?

I spoke to another of the conference delegates, Scott Drimie about why so many Zimbabwean migrant workers were employed in Cape Town’s service sector. I understood how the political turmoil in Zimbabwe would generate out-migrants, but how had they found a niche in the labour market in South Africa? It turns out that the ANC’s education policy is one of the biggest failures of the post Apartheid government. Post colonial Zimbabwe, on the other hand, had a much more effective education policy, since education was always a significant government priority. Even though Zimbabwe has been living through the violent end game of post independence leader Robert Mugabe, the education policies that the independent state first laid down have had a substantial impact, and are far more effective than anything the ANC post apartheid government has achieved.

Having an educated population has not, sadly, prevented the crisis of leadership Zimbabwe has recently experienced, so inter-regional migration to relatively stable South Africa has been a significant coping mechanism for Zimbabweans for several years now. Research suggests there are close to one million Zimbabweans in South Africa, and that over 60% of these migrant’s completed their secondary education before they arrived in South Africa.   The South African Migration Project’s survey on third wave Zimbabwean migration to South Africa (policy paper # 59) reports that while the type of occupations held by these migrants in South Africa is becoming less skilled (15% in professional and managerial positions in 2010 compared to 47% in 2005) , migrants are still predominantly employed (only 18% report being unemployed). I was even told that many of the teachers and lectures in Johannesburg’s trade and community colleges are from Zimbabwe.

This example got me thinking about our CIGI sponsored Diaspora Development and Governance in the Global South project. Our project is about the multiple ways through which migrant diasporas influence the development of their home communities; financial and social remittances, trade, and political organization etc. In some cases diasporas are not very much, if at all, engaged in their home country. One of Jonathan Crush’s earlier blogs makes this point clear in the case of South Africans in Canada. So when I came upon a situation where Zimbabwean migrant workers were making a valuable contribution to the formal and flourishing tourist sector of Cape Town, it got me thinking.

South Africa is clearly benefitting from Zimbabwe’s economic and political demise. South Africa has not invested enough in training its own black population, but, due to Zimbabwe’s political chaos, it is benefiting from the seemingly endless supply of relatively highly trained, but low paid, service workers. The Zimbabwean Diaspora provides important support to their relatives back home in Zimbabwe through remittances, but they also  appear to be contributing to the economic success of their far more wealthy neighbour to the south, through both employment in the service and health sector, and in some cases in educating the next generation of black South Africans enrolled in higher education. This is a paradoxical situation, and it makes me realise that the synergy between diasporas, development and governance in the global South is a complex, and in some instances contradictory, state of affairs. South Africa’s rejection of Apartheid was cause for a global celebration; we had high hopes for the country once apartheid fell.  In the case of Zimbabwe though, I feel immense sorrow at what Mugabe has become. Rhodesia’s transformation into Zimbabwe — the initial zenith of post independence success — now appears to be slipping back once again into repressive political violence.

Any yet, here I was, in the tourist bubble of Cape Town faced with the reality that it is the legacy of Mugabe’s polices in Zimbabwe that might be bailing out the failures of the post-Apartheid South African government. It is bizarre, and sad, and yet emblematic of what kind of world we live in today. We cannot take anything for granted, and when it comes down to it, it is effective governance frameworks and good policy planning that will create the most effective and enduring legacies that will benefit the majority of citizens; and that even madness in one’s sunset years will not undo the gains granted to society by initial schemes emblematic of good governance.

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.