South Africa is increasingly seen by Zimbabweans as a place to try to build a new life, rather than a place of temporary respite and quick income.
Migration from Zimbabwe since 1990 has consistently increased over time, and can be broken into three “waves” with distinctive drivers of migration patterns and migrant profiles.
The first wave occurred in the 1990s, the second from around 2000 to 2005 and the third in the years since.
The defining characteristic of migration from Zimbabwe in the 1990s was that the vast majority of migrants spent only short periods in South Africa, returning home frequently and showing very little inclination to remain in South Africa for any length of time.
The change since then has been dramatic. Less than 1% of migrants who have come here in the past five years return once a month and only 9% return once every few months.
As many as 46% of recent migrants have not been back to Zimbabwe since coming to South Africa. The same proportion say they want to remain in South Africa “for a few years.” Another 13% say they wish to remain “indefinitely” and another 8% want to remain “permanently.” In other words, two-thirds of the migrants view a long-term stay in South Africa as desirable.
These findings are based on a late 2010 survey by the Southern African Migration Programme of Zimbabweans in Cape Town and Johannesburg. All the respondents had come to South Africa for the first time in 2005 or more recently.
Most Zimbabwean migrants in the 1990s saw South Africa as nothing more than a place to help their households cope with poor economic conditions and prospects in Zimbabwe. Asked to compare their country with South Africa, Zimbabwe came out top on every measure except the availability of jobs and goods.
In the following decade, the migration surveys demonstrated the mounting pressures on ordinary Zimbabweans and the strong desire to get out of the country. A 2001 survey of Zimbabwean professionals, for example, showed that 86% had considered emigration.
By 2000, 51% of all Zimbabwean-trained medical doctors had left their country, with South Africa as the most popular destination.
Legal entries into South Africa from Zimbabwe rose rapidly from around 500000 in 2000 to more than 1.2 million in 2008.
The numbers with work permits increased from 3500 in 2001 to 21000 in 2008, suggesting that it became easier to legally employ Zimbabweans in South Africa after the 2002 Immigration Act was passed.
Zimbabwean maths and science teachers in particular are in demand in South Africa.
In 2010, surprisingly few respondents mentioned the search for asylum or a political motivation of any kind for migrating to South Africa.
Only 4% of the respondents said they needed to seek political asylum in South Africa. An additional 3.4% mentioned personal and family safety, 1.7% that there was “more peace” in South Africa, and 1.3% that there was “more democracy” in South Africa.
In total, this amounts to only 10% giving any kind of asylum-related reason for coming to South Africa.
Far more important as a reason for coming to South Africa was to work or look for work (mentioned by 44%), living conditions in Zimbabwe (18%) and to study (7%).
Far from being the desperate, destitute people conveyed by some media images, the current wave of migrants exhibit as much industry and energy as their predecessors.
More than 60% of the migrants are employed and another 20% work in the informal economy. Only 18% were unemployed at the time of the survey and a mere 14% had never had a job in South Africa.
However, the migrants do seem to occupy more menial jobs than their predecessors. This impacts on their incomes and their remitting behaviour. A third of the migrants earn less than R2000 per month and another 32% earn between R2000 and R5000 a month. Only 3% earn more than R20000 a month.
Given the high cost of living in South Africa, this means that migrants generally do not have a great deal of income to send home, but remitting continues.
Fundamental change in the economic and political environment is one of the most important pre-conditions for return migration to Zimbabwe.
Changes mentioned by most respondents were a change in economic conditions (89%) and improved job opportunities (79%).
Improved safety and security were mentioned by 69% and changes in the political system by 67%. In other words, while economic changes are seen as paramount, these are not seen as disconnected from substantive political change.
Levels of optimism about either were not high, explaining why so many see their immediate future in South Africa, not Zimbabwe.
Jonathan Crush is the CIGI chair in Global Migration and Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and honorary professor at the University of Cape Town. He edits the policy series, which has recently focused on Zimbabwean migration that can be found at www.queensu.ca/samp