The migrant labour system in South Africa has been blamed for many social ills – broken families, the prevalence of HIV/Aids, as well as undue financial strain on the poorest of households. Most recently, the migrant system was seen as a major contributor to the violent wildcat strikes in the mining industry, marked by the Marikana massacre of August 16 2012.
But what migrant labour in South Africa looks like today – and why it has endured – despite institutional policy being lifted in 1986, remains a widely debated issue, largely because information on this sector remains scarce.
Following months of violent and persistent unrest across South Africa's mining sector this past year, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe blamed the migrant labour system for its role in deepening rural poverty and breaking up families. He urged mining companies to allow workers to return to their homes more frequently and to provide safe transport.
Temporary or circular migration was entrenched under the apartheid system, under which workers, the most obvious being mine employees, would leave their households of origin and work elsewhere for 11 months at a time.
But 26 years later the pattern has persisted and the number of migrants may even be on the rise, depending on which data you look at.
Mark Collinson, a senior researcher at the Medical Research Council and the Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit, said the number of people entering labour migration has increased – at least in Bushbuckridge (with a population of more than a million), where the unit has studied households.
Of the rural population, 60% of older adult men are labour migrants, and younger male migrants have increased from 25% to 60% over the past decade. "It is a human being's adaptation to a difficult situation," Collinson said. But research, based on national household surveys, in fact, indicates a significant decline in labour migration of late.
A research paper, entitled Households and labour migration in post-apartheid South Africa, compared measures of labour migration and remittance receipts in the 2008 National Income Dynamics Study with those generated using earlier national household surveys.
Data collected between 1993 and 2008 show a drop in migrant labour. In 1993, 24% of rural households identified at least one member who was a migrant worker and in 2004 the number rose to 37%. But in 2008 there was a dramatic fall to 18%.
The author and National Research Foundation's chair in economic development, Dori Posel, however, acknowledged that there are differences in the measurement of labour migration between the 2008 survey and other household surveys.
The result could just be a quirk in the survey. "We will need subsequent data to see if this is a trend," she said.
Even the national planning commission, in its National Development Plan, said data on migration into and within South Africa is "poorly collected, weakly analysed and often misleading". The plan said municipalities were often unable to respond effectively because they did not have sufficient data or the necessary skills to make sense of the data they have.
Migrant labour system
Whether internal labour migration is increasing or in decline, the patterns entrenched by apartheid have undoubtedly persisted.
But Posel said South Africa was certainly not unique. "We see these kinds of migrant labour patterns characterising many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, even when the institutional policy has been lifted."
In a paper entitled The mining industry strike wave: what are the causes and what are the solutions? Gavin Hartford, an industry strategy consultant at the Esop Shop, noted that the phenomenon of migrant labour and resource extraction was a worldwide trend. "Resources are typically found in remote parts of the world, compelling a degree of migrancy to effect extraction."
In South Africa, however, colonial history "delivered a double blow" by statutorily enforcing the migrant labour system.
Most labour migration originates from African households in rural areas where there are limited opportunities for employment or income generation.
"The city looks dangerous and expensive from the rural perspective, it's generally the boldest that go," Collinson said.
Posel's research found the typical migrant to be male although female migration is also increasing – from 29% in 1993 to 37% in 2008.
Collinson found the same in the northeast of the country, where female migrants rose from 20% to 30% over the past 10 years.
"Ten years ago, most young women expected to be working at home: now they want to work. There has been a shift in thinking," Collinson said.
Posel's research found the average age of a migrant to be 35 years old and a "sizable share" is married, although Collinson said once a woman is married she is less likely to join the migrant labour force.
There were a range of restrictions preventing labourers from migrating with their families or settling permanently in urban areas under apartheid law but, even with formal restrictions removed, many workers maintain two households.
The reasons for this are numerous.
Posel said key factors have been commonly identified in a range of countries with similar migrancy patterns. She said the nature of the labour market, high rates of unemployment, job insecurity, stagnant or declining real wages, high cost of living and limited access to housing in urban areas all influenced labour migration patterns in other sub-Saharan countries. "So having two homes could likely be a case of risk spreading."
Differential migration pattern
In light of these predictors in other countries, the persistence of circular labour force migration in South Africa is not surprising, she said.
The National Planning Commission's diagnostic report showed that differential migration patterns largely reflect national patterns of job creation and job loss.
But Collinson believes the emotional ties to the home area always outweigh the allure of the city.
When young and healthy, labourers migrate for work on mines, farms or in other industries. But at the onset of old age or poor health the instinct is to return home to rural areas.
Although many rural areas host poor communities in which people cannot sustain an income, "not having a link to a rural area is additional impoverishment", Collinson said. Remittances to the household of origin act as a pension plan of sorts.
This system is less corrupt and money finds it mark better than if it was government money, he said.
But a forthcoming article written by Posel and Colin Marx, of the development planning unit at University College London, surveyed households in two urban informal settlements in KwaZulu-Natal and found that less than half of the migrants settled there wished to return home.
"Family members from the household of origin may identify migrants as continuing household members, but migrants may assess their attachment to, or membership in, this household quite differently."
Urban informal settlements
The research found that significant numbers of migrants who envisage permanent settlement in an urban area continue to define themselves as also part of another household.
"Our findings suggest … empirical estimates based on national micro-data overstate the extent of circular individual migration in South Africa," the paper said.
The National Development plan said the average residence period for migrants within urban informal settlements has increased from about two to four years in the early 1990s to 10 years currently.
Posel's research also found a large fall in the proportion of households receiving income transfers between 1993 and 2008 – from 23% to 15%.
She noted these findings are consistent with those of a 2010 study of changes in South African income distribution, which found that remittances to total household income declined from 1993 and particularly between 2000 and 2008. At the same time, the share of income from social grants steadily increased.
Hartford, however, said specific migratory and housing conditions have led to a "double economic burden" for migrants, which affects remittances.
He noted live-out allowances had the unintended consequence that migrants took on a second home, adding significantly to the wage pressure on migrants who became "significantly worse off in respect of the actual amount of remittances to their rural homes".
This is the first in an occasional series on migrancy