Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The demise of formal apartheid has created new and as yet only partially understood opportunities for migration to South Africa. Legal migration from other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, for example, has increased almost ten-fold since 1990 to over four million visitors per year. South Africa’s (re)insertion into the global economy has brought new streams of legal and undocumented migrants from outside the SADC region and new ethnic constellations within. The easing of legal and unauthorized entry to South Africa has made the country a new destination for African asylum-seekers, long-distance traders, entrepreneurs, students and professionals (Bouillon 1996; Saasa 1996; Rogerson 1997; de la Hunt 1998; Peberdy and Crush 1998; Ramphele 1999).

SAMP aims to explore the migration phenomenon from a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives and at a number of different spatial scales. At one end of the research spectrum are the project’s statistically representative, quantitative, national surveys in source and host countries (Sechaba Consultants 1997; de Vletter 1998; Frayne and Pendleton 1998; McDonald et al 1998, 1999; Mattes et al 1999; McDonald 2000). These surveys have provided important baseline data on cross-border migration at a panregional scale. They have also helped to contest the crude misrepresentations of xenophobic discourse (Croucher 1998; McDonald et al 1998; Crush 1999a).

But the large sample sizes and structured questionnaire instruments necessarily sacrifice the more nuanced information that can only be gleaned from local case studies of an ethnographic, participatory and place-based nature. What is the qualitative nature of the new South African migratory mosaic? Who are the new international migrants and immigrants in South Africa? What are the conditions shaping their migratory patterns? And what is the nature of their relations with South Africans and their home countries?

We are also interested in some of the broader conceptual and theoretical questions prompted by these movements. While they may be relatively new to South Africa (and that itself is an issue for debate), they are not altogether new movements. The global “age of migration” has, by virtue of the sequestering effect of apartheid, come late to the country (Castles and Miller 1993; Cohen 1995; Sassen 1999). The conceptual and analytical debates that have swirled around the issue of migration and globalization elsewhere have largely by-passed South Africa. The question, therefore, is whether the tools for understanding the age of migration have any explanatory purchase on the South African empirical material. Whether South and Southern Africa can actually be a source of theorizing, as they have been in the past, is another question.

Three major themes are addressed in this paper: (a) the changing character of cross-border migration to South Africa; (b) the value of the conceptual apparatus of transnationalism to describe and research changing forms of cross-border migration into South Africa; and (c) the spatial reconfiguration and emergence of new migrant spaces in the country. Each of these themes is discussed briefly below.