With little access to the formal job market, most rural people lack the resources to live in cities for long periods. They often maintain homes and families in rural areas and return there for marriages, burials and when the going gets too tough in town.
According to Deborah Potts, a reader in human geography at King's College London, similar patterns of circular migration are playing out in many African countries, countering the effects of rural-urban migration and confounding the widely-held assumption that the continent is urbanizing rapidly.
“There are some countries, and it seems to be a smaller and smaller proportion, that are urbanizing in the way that is widely understood,” Potts told IRIN, “but there’s a whole other group of countries, and a much larger group that, based on recent census material, is hardly urbanizing at all; and then there’s yet another group of cities where there has been evidence of de-urbanization.”
In a paper released by the Africa Research Institute in February, Potts notes that high living costs and the lack of formal job opportunities in African cities, particularly following the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, have narrowed the gap between rural and urban living standards.
“Confronted by economic insecurity and other hardships worse than where they came from, people behave as rationally in Africa as anywhere else,” she writes.
The policy implications of circular or urban-rural migration are significant, but part of the problem of developing policies for a mobile population is counting them. “All of the figures we have are problematic because there’s hidden migration,” commented Prof Phil Harrison, a member of South Africa’s National Planning Commission. “Many households have multiple locations with some members in a rural area and some in informal settlements, and they move between them.”
|People are seeking somewhere where they can find a reasonable standard of living and they're not finding it, so they keep moving|
"Many people still think that controlling migration to cities is a good thing, that cities will otherwise be overwhelmed," he said.
Data from the Independent Electoral Commission, which tracks voter movements, reveals that South Africa’s population is on the move, but not just to cities. “There’s a lot of step-wise migration and movement within municipalities,” said Harrison. “People are drawn to areas of greater economic opportunity, but also where infrastructure and housing is provided.”
Social grants for the elderly, children and the disabled can support a family living in a rural area where the cost of living is relatively low and have even stimulated the growth of cash economies in some areas. The higher fertility rate in rural areas has also compensated for any out-migration.
“In rural areas, we probably have a stable population for the next 20 to 30 years,” said Harrison.
In other parts of Africa which lack the economic safety net provided by government welfare benefits, rural households can often rely on access to land held by local traditional authorities to grow food for their families.
Potts said that countries like Malawi have remained deeply rural, despite the fact that people often struggle to grow enough food for their families, because of the lack of jobs and high cost of living in the cities. “People certainly move to towns, but they don’t tend to stay,” she said. “People are seeking somewhere where they can find a reasonable standard of living and they’re not finding it, so they keep moving.”
Still a magnet
While news that Africans are not flooding into cities may come as a relief to local authorities, Loren Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witswatersrand, warned against complacency. “While the rates of migration may not be as high as some feared, the growth rate when translated into absolute numbers nonetheless represents an important demographic and political challenge to local authorities and others mandated to provide for the urban poor," he told IRIN.
Cities like Johannesburg remain a magnet for migrants from inside and outside the country and while the expected levels of growth have not happened, the city is still growing at an estimated 1.9 percent per annum, twice the national rate.
"We've still got a backlog in terms of addressing needs like housing," said Harrison. "It might actually be a blessing if growth isn't as fast as was anticipated."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions