Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Crises present both opportunities and dangers. When facing turmoil in the 1980s, South Africa embraced an aggressive agenda of social, economic, and political transformation. The results are imperfect, but few question the underlying wisdom of this approach. Many of the country’s local and provincial governments now feel they are facing new crises. On one hand, they are empowered to create inclusive, secure, and prosperous cities. On the other, HIV/AIDS and an apparent influx of ‘surplus’ people from around the country and the continent presents the possibility of further economic and political fragmentation (see Tomlinson, et al, 2003; xiii; Landau and Jacobsen 2004). Although migration and HIV/AIDS are dramatically influencing the country’s socio-economic and political configurations, pro-active response may minimise their negative effects. Given the nature of migration and urbanisation in South Africa, a reasoned approach to human mobility may ultimately promote the welfare of all urban residents, regardless of origins. 1.2 In a context of migration and continued social fragmentation, governing for sustainable livelihoods means overcoming divisions by promoting a sense of a shared future and common rules of economic and social engagement (see Evans 2002a; Davis 1998; Logan, Whaley, and Crowder 1997; Logan and Molotch 1987). Indeed, Stoker (2001) argues that throughout the world, local government’s are augmenting their conventional responsibilities for service delivery with ever greater emphasis on building public-private partnerships and encouraging popular participation (see also, Tomlinson, et al, 2003: xi; Simone 2004:12). Fostering mutually beneficial interactions among all urbanites—whether within public institutions or on city streets—can transform cities into what Logan and Molotch (1987) term ‘growth machines’: agglutinations of private and public initiatives and institutions that promote economic gains and their equitable distribution. This paper explores how exclusion based on nationality or community of origin effects, to borrow from the Gauteng’s Growth and Development Strategy (2005: 3), initiatives “to achieve a shared vision, amongst all sectors of our society, for the achievement of our goal of improving the quality of life for all citizens.”

While each city and province has its own priorities, they share a fundamental interest in overcoming fragmentation in pursuit of equity, wealth, and security. Further examining Gauteng Province’s Development Strategy provides an entrée into current thinking about urban governance and development throughout South Africa. In this document, Gauteng places considerable value on building institutions that facilitate interactions among and service provision to all city residents. That its first objective is “provision of social and economic infrastructure and services that will build sustainable communities and contribute to halving poverty” (2005: 16) reflects the indivisibility of inclusivity and long-term planning. The means outlined to achieve this object similarly echo an effort to shape a common destiny from cities characterised by fragmentation and exclusion. These include (op cit: 16-17), inter alia

  • Building relationships and partnerships between all sectors of society;
  • Ensuring that the benefits of economic growth extend to all our people;
  • Strengthening co-operative and intergovernmental relations in a manner that reduces competition and reinforces combined efforts towards our national goal of creating a better life for all people;
  • Strengthening sub-continental and continental partnerships and relationships towards meeting the goals and objectives of NEPAD.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the world, “the desire to construct policies that will advantage cities in global markets leads those in power to ignore problems of liveability and sustainability” (Evans 2002b: 141). Although urban elites and the poor in South Africa’s townships, inner cities, and informal settlements share an interest in promoting their communities’ welfare, these groups rarely share strategies for realising such ends. To date, there has been a strong emphasis on improving South Africa’s ability to compete in the global market place. This is most evident in documents like Joburg 2030, a strategic plan that all but ignores the citizenry’s heterogeneous backgrounds, aspirations, and limitations. Elsewhere in the country, cities have also been swayed by promises of a clean, high-tech economy without adequately considering the prerequisites for and consequences of such priorities. This has translated into concerted efforts to promote formal business and trade that, as President Mbeki (2003) and others argue, provide the poor with no guarantee of improved welfare (see also Castells 1998:162; Sassen 1997; Douglass 1998). Due to apartheid’s legacy, this means a small number of relatively wealthy whites, together with a select few from other groups, are improving their economic standing while historically disadvantaged groups remain equally—if not further—marginalised.

This paper argues that previously disadvantaged groups (i.e., those disenfranchised and marginalised during Apartheid) are not the only ones facing exclusion in contemporary South Africa. Discrimination based on nationality or community of origins also risks fostering significant forms of social fragmentation. Recognising that marginalising any group undermines cities’ ability to improve all residents’ safety and welfare, effective leaders must actively combat discrimination even when legally, politically, or socially mandated. In an era of migration, that means finding creative and pragmatic ways of preventing migrants—from South Africa and elsewhere—from actively participating in the communities in which they live.

Although the need to address issues of both domestic and international migration is evident, local and provincial authorities have typically reacted to the presence of foreign migrants by implicitly denying their presence, excluding them from developmental plans, or allowing discrimination throughout the government bureaucracy and police (Vawda 1999; Landau, et al, 2004). There are, however, few reasons to believe that vociferously denouncing foreigners or denying their rights will discourage international migration. Regional inequalities of wealth and threats to human security, combined with South Africa’s ever more prominent economic profile, auger for increasing numbers of non-nationals coming to and passing through the country. Similarly, the death of many rural industries and small-scale farming—together with the breakdown of family structures due to HIV/AIDS—will see many South Africans moving to cities and peri-urban settlements. We must accept the observation made by Johannesburg city councillor that “as much as we might not want them here, we can not simply wish people away” (Personal Communication, 13 July 2005). International migrants—refugees, asylum seekers, job seekers, and others—together with newly urbanised South Africans are now part of the country’s urban population. As these movements continue, discrimination based on nationality or community of origin threatens to create a new socially, economically, and politically excluded ‘underclass’ (see Wilson 2002[1987]) with the potential to undermine the welfare of all urban residents.

Rather than serving as a definitive statement of migration and the challenges it raises for South Africa’s cities, the points raised here are intended as provocations: to promote dialogue and critical thinking about South African cities’ social dynamics. Although drawing much of its evidence from Gauteng Province (and Johannesburg in particular), this paper raises issues relevant to many cities throughout South Africa. Given its scope, it in no way represents the full diversity of cities’ experiences or the specific challenges facing individual communities. It does, however, make an effort to draw on national studies or representative data. Given the lack of good information on migration, it supplements this with personal accounts, news reports, and policy documents. Specific examples of discrimination and exploitation are included here for illustrative purposes, but only when they reflect widespread, if not typically, experiences.