How many times have you heard that over 3 million people have fled Zimbabwe, migrating to South Africa or elsewhere? The figure varies, but it’s always big. But where does it come from and is it true?
This is a question asked by Jonathan Crush and Daniel Tevera in their edited book, Zimbabwe’s Exodus: Crisis, Migration, Survival published in 2010. They trace the earliest use of the 3 million figure to South African media reports in 2003, and to comments made by Thabo Mbeki who claimed there were this number of Zimbabweans in South Africa. The figure has been repeated since, yet the media reports keep presenting a picture of people continuously ‘flooding’ across the border to South Africa. The figures just do not add up. You would think that there would be nobody left, beyond Mugabe and his cronies, if you believed everything you read!
Crush and Tevera point to the political nature of these figures. The argue that “The South African media and officialdom have a history of making up numbers about migration to the country. These numbers, often highly exaggerated for alarmist effect, acquire a life of their own once they enter the public realm. Tracking down their source usually reveals that they have no sound statistical basis”. They are, in other words, myths, and ones repeated by many who should know better.
Indeed the book shows there is no way of knowing the actual facts. No-one on either side of the border keeps proper records, people move back and forward between countries in the region with a high frequency and much movement is illegal in any case. The book offers some clues, however, and usefully compiles what statistics there are, but the authors are at pains to point out the difficulties of precise numbers particularly in the context of circular migration patterns. Circular migration – to places of work and back to home – has been part of southern Africans livelihoods for the best part of a century, as Debbie Potts points out in her recent book focusing on Harare. Yet, as Crush and Tevera point out, this history is often forgotten in contemporary policy discussions, framing current events as new, dramatic and with movement in need of containment. It is of course a familiar story for those of us who live in ‘fortress Europe’.
But have things changed as a result of the crisis in Zimbabwe? Has there been a greater movement of people and have patterns changed? The answer is of course, yes. There are some excellent new works on the Zimbabwean diaspora which tell us lots about who the diaspora are, where they come from and how they relate to ‘home’. Crush and Tevera concentrate on South Africa, while Joann McGregor and Ranka Primorac focus on the UK, for example, and the chapters in these books contain plenty of fascinating cases. As we show from data from Masvingo, patterns of migration have changed significantly in the last couple of decades, particularly from 1990s and the period of structural adjustment. The ‘classic’ movement to the farms or mines within Zimbabwe for a period followed by return to the communal areas on retirement has shifted. There are now new migrants, including youth without land or the prospect of land, the border jumpers; there are more women migrants, tapping into regional trade networks, and there is greater transnational migration, to other countries in the SADC region, but also significantly to the UK.
Each of these migrant groups (and there are of course others) link to home in different ways, sending remittances in different amounts and forms. In the 2000s, when Zimbabwe’s economy was in meltdown, these flows of remittances were crucial, especially if they could get into the country in foreign exchange. Work by Sarah Bracking and Llloyd Sachikonye for the Brooks Institute at Manchester offers some insights into these relationships, but a deeper understanding of how such external players interact with local economies is always difficult to grasp.
In a review of the Crush and Tevera book, Terry Ranger asks: “Perhaps the most important question is not why so many Zimbabweans have left, but why – and how – so many have stayed”. This is an intriguing question because if as Crush and Tevera point out ‘a few hundred thousand’ have left, then most people have remained, even if they leave for periods and return. Given the crisis at home, why? We know much about the push factors, but what about the factors that keep people at home? There are of course the natural bonds of family and home that are valued, the importance of familiarity and the support networks that exist. These are big factors especially when contrasting with the xenophobia experienced by migrants in South Africa, for example.
But there is also one hypothesis that is not explored in these works, one perhaps too difficult to contemplate. Perhaps for some things were not so bad at home; at least not as extreme as sometimes portrayed. The Zimbabwean economic crisis hit the still relatively small middle classes much harder than others. Others gained land, and some returned from abroad to gain access during the land reform. With no jobs at home and few in South Africa or elsewhere except for the connected and skilled, farming at home was perhaps a better option in this period. Certainly remittances have, as they have always done, offset the worst of the crisis, but perhaps land reform, although precipitating some migration from those dispossessed, including farm workers and white farmers, acted to provide a cushion for others. And, for significant proportion of new farmers in Masvingo province, particularly on the A1 plots, they actually fared rather well, and would not dream of leaving, and heading off to the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of the diaspora.