Moving to a city in search of work seems to pay off for many poor rural South Africans.
Data that track changes over time indicate that as many as 385 000 people were lifted from poverty between 2008 and 2014 after moving from rural to urban areas — their poverty levels were halved, together with a fall in unemployment. So government ambivalence about urbanisation should be replaced by a more positive and proactive approach.
The fate of people who uproot themselves and migrate to cities is widely discussed. Conventional wisdom says that most end up living in shack settlements, where they struggle to make ends meet because they lack the skills to compete for the paltry jobs available. Their frustrations give rise to protests, land invasions and other forms of antisocial behaviour.
Another scenario is that, by sheer determination, they manage to grasp some kind of urban livelihood and gradually claw their way up the job ladder.
The outcome is of enormous significance throughout Africa because of the unprecedented scale of urbanisation under way. Should governments seek to slow down the process or accept its inevitability and manage it as best they can?
Our recent research at the Human Sciences Research Council suggests that urbanisation in South Africa was an important source of upward income mobility over the past decade. The figures for 2008 to 2014 cited above come from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS). Those who moved became better off by gaining access to the labour market.
The progress achieved is all the more surprising considering the depressed state of the economy since 2008.
Cities and development
Historically, there has been a strong relationship between urbanisation and economic development in many parts of the world. Cities function as catalysts for prosperity; they can generate economies of scale and scope, reduced logistics costs and access to shared services, specialised suppliers, thick labour markets and knowledge spillovers.
But the benefits of density and proximity are not automatic. Many African cities suffer from negative externalities such as congestion, infrastructure bottlenecks and pollution.
The question is not how to curb the growth of cities but how best to harness the energy and productive potential of intense human interaction in concentrated populations.
Two-thirds of South Africa’s population now live in urban areas, up from only half in 1994. The Gauteng city region has grown more rapidly than other places, with net immigration of 1.4-million people between 2001 and 2016, according to data from Statistics South Africa in 2017.
Has moving to the city offered rural residents an escape from poverty or a dead-end of squalor and hardship?
Despite the overall benefits of urbanisation, many migrants are disadvantaged in the search for decent work because of their lack of relevant skills and work experience, their weak social networks and poor transport connections to centres of employment. People moving into informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to inadequate shelter, deficient basic services, environmental hazards and violent crime.
Migration, work and poverty
The NIDS tracks individuals over time, which allows us to compile compelling evidence about their “before” and “after” status when they migrate. We calculate changes in the poverty rate for three groups: those who remained in rural areas, those who live in urban areas all the time, and those who migrated from rural to urban areas.
Those who stayed in the rural areas experienced a slight decline in poverty rates and those who migrated to an urban area experienced a sizeable decline, crossing the stark divide between rural and urban poverty levels.
Before their move to the city, the large majority of migrants were destitute in their rural communities, with levels of poverty above 80% (that is, more than 80% of individuals had a monthly income below the poverty line).
Six years later, the level of income poverty for these migrants had more than halved to below 35%. Meanwhile, the poverty level for individuals who remained in the countryside declined marginally to 70%.
In other words, rural migrants started off mostly poor but ended up as urban and largely non-poor. Two-thirds of migrants who were poor in 2008 managed to exit poverty by 2014. In contrast, only 20% of individuals who stayed in their rural areas achieved the same escape from poverty.
Importantly, this drop in poverty levels did not come about because migrants simply attached themselves to better-resourced urban households. Rather, the evidence shows that migrants were successful in finding some kind of job, even if it was casual and low-paid.
A total of 330 000 people moved into employment after migrating to an urban area. This meant that the expanded rate of unemployment for this group fell dramatically over the period: from 50% to almost 15%, and nearly 80% of previously unemployed migrants’ managed to find work in the urban area. Half of these were previously unemployed and half were not economically active.
It is difficult to disentangle the mixture of factors and forces that determine the success or failure of somebody’s relocation to the city. Still, the evidence suggests that migration is statistically significant in lifting many people out of income poverty, despite the other hardships they may face.
These findings are supported by another recent study of social mobility, which found that migration to urban areas was one of the biggest triggers that moved people into the middle class, with higher household employment. Studies in other countries also support a strong relationship between migration and rising incomes.
Part rural, part urban
Although the poverty-reducing benefits of moving to the city are clear, the historical rural-urban divide implies some complications in South Africa.
A peculiar characteristic of migration is that many people appear to live a dual life. They maintain a foot in both rural and urban areas, whether physically, emotionally or financially. Apartheid’s denial of black people’s right to residency in urban settlements set in motion a circular process of movement between town and countryside.
Our own estimates from the study’s data show countervailing flows of people from urban to rural areas, particularly during the economic downturn around 2008. Recent estimates suggest that, in 15% of African rural households, an adult member is absent for at least one month a year to look for work.
The dual existence may have several consequences that are harmful to both urban and rural communities.
For example, migrants leave their children and elderly relatives in rural areas, resulting in split households and disruption to family life. But they remain attached to their rural origins and identities by investing whatever spare resources they have in rural homes and livestock.
On the other hand, repatriated resources could have been invested in better housing in the city and circulated locally to stimulate growth and jobs.
It is unclear whether remittance income offers a lifeline to impoverished rural households or whether households should rather relocate and access the full benefits of urban opportunities.
These aspects suggest that the benefits of current forms of migration are not clear-cut for the families concerned. Further research is needed to understand the legacy and trajectory of migrant labour after apartheid — and how current patterns affect both the sending and receiving areas, and both the individual migrant and their household members.
For many years government policy has been ambivalent about rural-urban migration, partly because of social dislocation in the sending regions, and pressures on land, housing and public services in the cities. Attitudes have often been based on fear — of overburdened local services, job displacement by outsiders and higher crime.
Municipal bylaws, land-use zoning systems and investments in public infrastructure can all be used as instruments of inclusion or exclusion for outsiders. Where city authorities fail to — or are unable to — provide serviced land for incoming populations, the result is intensely crowded informal settlements and backyard shacks.
Such stresses and strains lie behind the recent spate of unauthorised land occupations in the major cities and the associated concerns about social and political instability.
On its own, the government is unable to deliver on its promise of decent, well-located housing for all. Private-public partnerships that draw on additional capital and technical expertise to expand accommodation and infrastructure are potent tools for building inclusive, well-functioning cities.
As entry points for migrants and places of suffering and high risk, shack settlements are critical arenas for policy attention. The government needs to renew its commitment to work with people to upgrade housing and improve basic services. There is no justification for citizens who live in more or less permanent settlements to have to endure squalid living conditions more than two decades after 1994.
The government also needs to go beyond reacting to the problems in informal settlements by becoming better equipped for future urbanisation. It needs to prepare the ground in advance to accommodate migrants and integrate them into the physical and social fabric of the city. Investing in people and places is key to realising the potential of liveable and prosperous cities.
Ivan Turok is executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council; Justin Visagie is a research specialist at the HSRC. This article first appeared on the Econ3x3 website