Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Migration from Zimbabwe to South Africa has been extremely well-documented by researchers. In this paper, we suggest that there is a need to periodize these migration flows in order to understand how and why they have changed over time, not simply in terms of the volume of migration but the changing drivers of migration and the shifting nature of the migrant stream. Few previous studies have taken a longitudinal approach to Zimbabwean migration, primarily because most research takes place at one point in time. SAMP is in the fortunate position of having a large database at its disposal which allows us to compare migration from Zimbabwe at three different points in time: 1997, 2005 and 2010. Although migration from Zimbabwe since 1990 has consistently increased over time, it can be periodized into three ‘waves’ with distinctive drivers of migration, 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. In this paper we identify continuities and shifts in migrant profiles and behaviours during each of these periods. The paper also examines contemporary migration from Zimbabwe during what we refer to as the third wave of migration.Our findings are based on a survey of Zimbaweans in Cape Town and Johannesburg conducted in late 2010. All of the respondents had come to South Africa for the very first time in 2005 or more recently. The main characteristics of third wave migrants are as follows:

  • With regard to the feminization of migration, the proportion of female migrants in the third wave is the same as in the second wave (44%) which suggests that the gender balance has stabilised. However, unlike first and second wave migrants, females are now engaged in a much wider variety of occupations.
  • There are more children and young people in the third wave. The proportion of young Zimbabwean migrants (aged 15-24) rose dramatically from 15% in 2005 to 31% in 2010. Our survey found that 28% of migrants in Johannesburg and Cape Town were children living with their parents or guardians.
  • Consistent with the younger age profile of the third wave, the proportion of unmarried migrants continued to rise (from 25% in 1997 to 31% in 2005 to 49% in 2010).
  • More of the third wave migrants are school-leavers (the proportion of those with a primary or secondary education rising from 48% in 2005 to 60% in 2010). Some 35% of third wave migrants have never had a job in Zimbabwe.
  • The proportion of working age migrants has continued to increase, as it has since the 1990s. The unemployed in Zimbabwe are a major component of the migration flow. Half of the third wave migrants (50%) were unemployed before leaving Zimbabwe, whereas only 18% are unemployed in South Africa. Wage employment rose from 45% in Zimbabwe to 62% in South Africa and participation in the informal economy from 8% in Zimbabwe to 20% in South Africa.
  • Sixty-two percent of third wave migrants are employed and another 20% work in the informal economy. However, the third wave of migrants do seem to occupy more menial jobs than their predecessors. In 2005, for example, over 40% of migrants from Zimbabwe were in skilled and professional positions. Only 15% of the third wave are employed in these types of position. Nearly a quarter (24%) are engaged in manual work (compared to only 7% in 2005), 13% are in the service sector (compared to 9.5% in 2005), 8% are in domestic work (compared to 2% in 2005) and 4% are in the security industry (compared to less than 1% in 2005). In addition, many migrants have a second job or source of income, the most common being casual work and informal trading.
  • Only 11% of the migrants have no income at all but a quarter earn less than R2,000 per month. Another 32% earn between R2,000 and R5,000 per month. Only 14% earn more than R10,000 per month and 3% more than R20,000 per month.
  • Although the majority of migrants still move in their individual capacity, social networks (including kin and friendship ties) are playing an increasingly important role. For example, 51% of third wave migrants were preceded to South Africa by immediate family members. In addition, 52% had extended family members, 63% had friends and 65% had community members already in South Africa. Social networking not only influences the decision to migrate to South Africa, it has a cumulative impact on the decisions of later migrants. For example, while 49% of migrants had no immediate family members in South Africa prior to migrating, the number without immediate family members had dropped to 26% at the time of the survey.
  • A defining characteristic of migration from Zimbabwe since the 1990s has been that the vast majority of migrants engage in circular migration, only spending short periods in South Africa, returning home frequently and showing very little inclination to remain in South Africa for any length of time. In 2005, nearly a third of migrants returned to Zimbabwe at least monthly and 50% of migrants returned at least once every few months. Amongst third wave migrants, less than 1% return monthly and only 9% return once every few months. As many as 46% had not been back to Zimbabwe since coming to South Africa.
  • South Africa is seen by many in the third wave as a longer-term destination rather than a temporary place to earn quick money. Nearly half of the respondents, for example, want to remain in South Africa for a few years. Another 13% wish to remain indefinitely and another 8% permanently. In other words, two thirds of the migrants view a long-term stay in South Africa as desirable.
  • Like their compatriots, third wave migrants are significant remitters of cash and goods to Zimbabwe. However, they occupy lowlier jobs which impacts on their incomes and remitting behaviour. Remitting continues, though not with the frequency or in the same amounts as with earlier rounds of migrants. Nearly a quarter of the migrants (24%) had not remitted any money to Zimbabwe. In 2005, 62% of migrants remitted at least monthly. Amongst the third wave, only 27% remit this frequently.
  • The third wave relies much more on informal remittance channels than its predecessors. The proportion of migrants using formal banking channels dropped from 27% in 2005 to only 11% in 2010. On the other hand, the proportion of migrants taking money home themselves also dropped (from 35% in 2005 to only 9% in 2010). This is consistent with the fact that the third wave visits Zimbabwe far less frequently. Instead, these migrants tend to use returning friends and co-workers (up from 11% in 2005 to 27% in 2010) and informal money transfer channels (up from 3% in 2005 to 30% in 2010).

All of this indicates that the nature of migration from Zimbabwe to South Africa is undergoing a significant shift and that without major economic and political changes in Zimbabwe, and possibly even despite them, the trends identified in this analysis of the third wave are likely to continue and even intensify.