Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Migration is a growing phenomenon internationally. Between 1960 and 2000 international migrants in Africa increased from 9 million to 16 million. Although Africa has experienced a drop in the number of international migrants over the last two decades, it has more than double the number of migrants than Latin America and the Caribbean, and between a half and a third of the number in Asia. Flows of people from country to country across the continent are increasingly significant. Migration between cities across the continent is becoming a common phenomenon, as households attempt to secure their livelihoods.

In addition to cross-border migration into cities, high population growth rates and rural-urban migration contribute to creating one of the world’s fastest urbanisation rates. It is estimated that almost half (46%) of Africa’s projected population will live in cities by the year 2020. Cities are also the continent’s engines of growth. Statistics show that urban economies in Africa contribute a larger proportion to the GDP than rural economies, which house the majority of the continent’s population. Fully, 34% of Africa’s population is urbanised, and this population contributes more than half (60%) of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product.

These factors suggest the need to ensure that adequate political and policy attention is given to cities. But policy logics do not always fit reality. Post-independence policy interventions have focussed more on developing rural areas for a number of reasons. Rural populations were larger than urban ones, and rural areas were seen as the mainstay of urban economies—providing both food and raw material for urban industry. African governments and aid agencies in the 1960s and the following decades worried about the development inequalities between rural areas, the ripple effect this would have on population movements, and the sustainability of cities. Policies therefore aimed at curbing rural-urban migration through instigating growth in the agricultural and primary industry sectors with the objective of securing employment and livelihoods for rural dwellers. To boost rural development, co-operatives were set up; agricultural boards financed; rural areas electrified; feeder roads constructed; water programmes initiated; and, farming subsidies rolled out/extended. Politically, governments also felt the need to ‘reach’ their rural citizens, and control rural economies.

In the cities, governments seemed to have some form of control. After all, there was a strong presence of government administration and business institutions in capital cities (and other major towns), and there already existed fairly adequate levels of infrastructure. In fact, most colonial governments developed some road networks, housing, water and electrical infrastructure. The urgency to develop urban areas was therefore much less than the need to bolster rural areas. This is not to say that no new development took place in urban areas. Indeed, many cities expanded their housing and infrastructure programs to accommodate the influx of people from rural areas during this time. But the key to successful urban areas and productive economies was perceived as a rural function – if rural areas succeeded, so too would cities.

The anti-urban bias, driven largely by government and development aid agencies, resulted in the neglect of urban spaces and populations. Combined with low economic growth rates, the negative impact of Structural Adjustment Programs on households, and the inability of city governments to provide services and enforce by-laws, this spawned a severe management crisis. Partly as a consequence of governments’ inability to foster and promote an environment which enables households to secure sustainable livelihoods, the majority of the activities taking place in African cities are outside the formal sector:

It is not simply…the breakdown of public infrastructure, service deterioration, or managerial inefficiency…it is the remarkable resilience of non state agencies to challenge the monopoly of state institutions in shaping the character of cities today, which is of striking importance. In most Third World cities, the bulk of housing, transportation, employment and trade takes place outside formal state institutions (McCarney 1996:11)

In East African cities, two thirds of the population live outside planned settlements with little or no infrastructure, while 75% of the labour force is engaged in activities in the informal sector (Halfani 1996). Local authorities regulate only 25% of the activities that take place within urban boundaries. Environmental and human degradation, together with high levels of poverty social polarisation and deprivation, have become defining characteristics of African cities. Despite these harsh realities, cities continue to be ‘people’ magnets’ attracting migrants from rural areas as well as political and economic immigrants from other countries. It is estimated that international migrants in Southern Africa constituted and estimated 0.6% of the population in 2000. The figure is larger in other regions in Africa; in West Africa and East Africa international migrants comprise 2.7% and 1.8% of the population respectively. In South Africa, the majority of the migrants find their way to the country’s major cities, attracted by the possibility of better economic, political and social opportunities.

This policy briefly questions the ability of formal developmental interventions to understand local contexts, and, by extension, govern urban spaces. It interrogates the relevance and implications of initiatives like the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)—which speak largely of formal interactions and formal economies—for urban development and the politics of claim-making with particular reference to Johannesburg. Brief commentary is provided on how NEPAD perceives migrants and their rights in the city, region or nation-state. The paper shows through a case study of the lives of migrants in inner city Johannesburg how a significant number of households continue to survive and are supported through informal networks which are outside the state, and how the state is often unable to harness or control these processes.