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DEVELOPMENT-SOUTHERN AFRICA: Leaving the Country to Earn a Living

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, May 31 2007 (IPS) - ‘‘We have lost a young woman in South Africa. We have raised R3,500 (500 US dollars) but we need R5,000 (714 dollars). We want to transport the body home to her relatives in Zimbabwe. But it is difficult,” Joyce Dube, director of the Southern African Women’s Institute for Migration Affairs (SAWIMA), told a gathering.

She was speaking at a one-day seminar, titled ‘‘Female Migrants and the Impact of Remittances in the SADC Region”, which brought together some 30 researchers and civil society activists from around the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC). The seminar took place yesterday (May 30) in South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg.

Some participants had difficulty containing their emotions as Dube, who seemed tired, explained the circumstances behind the death of the woman, whose name has been withheld as a sign of respect to her relatives.

The gathering was jointly organised by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University.

‘‘That kind of money can help the parents of the deceased for three or four months. Instead they are sending them a body in a casket,” Steve Shumba, a Zimbabwean migrant in South Africa, told IPS by phone. ‘‘We go through such painful experiences virtually every day.”

Like hundreds of thousands of other migrants from the SADC region, the woman came to South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse, to look for greener pastures.

‘‘Conservatively, 49,000 Zimbabweans cross into South Africa every month. Estimates put the percentage of women between 20 and 55 of the total,” Ayesha Kajee, senior researcher at SAIIA, told IPS at the gathering.

Nobody has any idea about the exact number of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa. Dube reckons that the conservative figure of three million being touted by various researchers and civil society groups is an underestimation. ‘‘I think the number is more than that,” she told IPS.

Zimbabweans are not the only Africans coming to South Africa. Wade Pendleton, a professor at the Southern African Migration Project at the Witwatersrand University, took part in a 57-page study ‘‘SADC Migrants, Remittances and Development”.

He told the gathering that, globally, 250 billion dollars are remitted by migrants annually. ‘‘Recent estimates suggest that the value of remittances from South Africa alone may be as much as R6 billion (around 856 million US dollars) annually,” he said. ‘‘But I think this is an underestimation.”

The study focused on 4,700 households in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and involved 30,000 people. It found that food tops the list of necessities that cause people to migrate and remit money. Others, in order of importance, are school fees, clothing and transportation, Pendleton said. ‘‘Many of the migrants maintain their links with home through money.”

Willie Kachaka, an official at Malawi’s state-owned National Statistics, said eight percent of the country’s population are migrants. Women constitute 46.7 percent of the migrant population, including nurses working in South Africa, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, he said.

‘‘Studies shows that 75 percent of the remittances are use to purchase food,” he said.

Malawi’s giant neighbour Mozambique, once a refugee-producing country, started to produce economic migrants after the 1992 peace deal between the FRELIMO government and RENAMO rebels. Until then, Mozambicans did not migrate, thanks to the country’s socialist system.

All of that changed because of the structural adjustments introduced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). ‘‘That forced people to migrate internally and across the border,” Ines Raimundo, a lecturer of human geography at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University, told the gathering.

She said an increasing number of Mozambican women now travel to China, Brazil, Thailand, Hong Kong and Dubai to trade. ‘‘The SADC market is saturated. As a result, women travel to other continents,” Raimundo said.

Researchers say remittances still do not move via financial institutions. ‘‘More than 90 percent of the remittances in the SADC region are done informally. The migrants hand money, for example, to a taxi driver to deliver to their children or relatives at home. It is 95 percent reliable and safe,” Sally Peberdy, project manager at the Southern African Migration Project at Witwatersrand University, told IPS at the meeting.

African women have been travelling for decades to earn money. In the 1960s, women constituted 42 percent of migrants in Africa. Nowadays it is 50 percent, Peberdy said. ‘‘It is not a new thing. It has been overlooked by researchers,” she added.

Stringent immigration requirements impede travel. ‘’A lot of women bribe their way through the border posts because it is difficult to get a visa. You need to fill in forms and present a bank statement,” Peberdy said.

This affects researchers’ data collection, as border jumpers or those who bribe customs officials are not documented.

‘‘It is difficult to calculate the amounts involved in remittances. We need to persuade banks to relax the process of opening a bank account for migrants. We also need to persuade them to reduce charges on money transfers for migrants,” Burton Joseph, a director at South Africa’s department of home affairs, told the meeting.

‘‘State departments such as the National Intelligence Agency are interested in formalizing the remittance of funds by migrants to combat money laundering,” he said.

Theresa van der Merwe, a councillor for the city of Johannesburg, said the council has established a desk to deal with migrants’ issues. ‘‘It is to help migrants with information. When women come to South Africa they are exploited and abused. This desk is to provide them with information. Some of the women come here because they do not have a choice.”

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