Climate change and migrations in South Africa

 By Nicholas Newman

Over the last few years, South Africa has become the destination of choice for increasing numbers of economic and climate-affected migrants from neighboring countries…

Just as in Europe, South Africa’s citizens worry that migrant workers are taking their jobs, lowering wages and contributing to crime rates. In recent years such concerns have led to protests by South Africans against migrant workers and businesses. The same forces that have driven west and east Africans to cross the Mediterranean to Italy in search of a “better life” are also driving southern Africans to seek the “South African dream.”

Xenophobia Attacks in South Africa

With domestic unemployment running at 27 percent in June 2017, South Africa is creating too few jobs for its own citizens, let alone newly arrived migrants whose numbers, according to various estimates, ranging from a high of 5 million to just 2.2 million.
While the total number of migrants is open to dispute, what is not in doubt is that a large proportion of migrants now in South Africa originate from Zimbabwe. A recent report on SW Radio Africa’s website stated, “it is believed there are between two and three million Zimbabweans living and working” in South Africa. This is hardly surprising given relative geographical proximity and an unemployment rate of around 90 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

Reasons people want to work in South Africa

It is feared that climate change is likely to cause growing numbers to migrate from Africa’s heartlands towards Europe or southwards towards South Africa. Climate experts predict that Africa’s weather could become hotter, droughts could become harder and longer while rainfall could become heavier and cause flooding.
Extreme weather could make forestry, fishing, crop and livestock production less certain and more difficult. Even small changes in rainfall and temperature can affect the productivity of rural occupations, food security, and life.
In addition, climate change can affect encourage the spread of many tropical diseases including malaria, dengue fever, cholera and dysentery.
Perhaps, the effects of climate change are already with us since the southern part of Africa now receives below-normal rainfall during El Nino years and La Nina brings normal or above-normal rainfall. Southern Africa is in the grip of a historic drought, which has slashed crop production, killed cattle and fish, shut off water supplies to rural communities and even diminished the mighty Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border to a shadow of its former self.
Already, Zimbabwe has reported an unspecified number of wild animals and some 7,000 cattle dying due to low rainfalls. Both farmers and the tourist industry have suffered. In neighboring Zambia, low water levels have not only affected the agricultural sector but also power generation causing frequent power cuts for residents, industries and mines with knock-on effects on employment.

Seasonal rainfall from October 2015 to January 2016 in southern Africa ranked within the last 35 years (World Food Programme)

The ongoing drought in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Madagascar made the 2016 growing season the driest in 35 years. In 2016, many of these countries experienced such poor maize harvests that Britain’s Department for International Development and the World Food Programme began supplying food to affected areas.
Such is the importance of the weather and its current volatility that, rainfall, drought, in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland’s dam levels on irrigation and power generation that on Google Play a Dam APP is available to purchase for your mobile phone or tablet PC.

Leaving for work and a “better life” in South Africa

As a result, it is not surprising that people are flowing towards Africa’s second biggest economy, South Africa. The majority of migrants are seeking or finding jobs in the heavy industrialized Gauteng region surrounding Johannesburg. In fact, human rights organizations are suggesting that more migrants could be coming to South Africa, as climate and economic conditions worsen in many African countries.
According to research from the Migrating for Work Research Consortium, 32.65 percent of international migrants are in the informal sector, compared to 16.57 percent of “non-migrants” and 17.97 percent of “domestic migrants.” The country is among the top 10 destinations in the world, for migrants looking for safety or a fresh start, according to the office of the South African President. It helps that South Africa has generous asylum laws in the world, thanks to the writers of the country’s most recent constitution.

This movement of people assumes that potential migrants have the resources to travel. Therefore, for example, the very poor rural inhabitant might move to the nearest town and stay put. Those with a little more money might migrate to a neighboring country.
However, long distance migration, takes money, time and knowledge. While the communications revolution has spread information and knowledge of other places, money remains the main obstacle to migration around Africa, just as it is for migrants trying to reach Europe. For many people with little in the way of resources, South Africa rather than Europe is seen as the easier choice to escape the problems of climate change. For many, the country is seen as a land of opportunity, stability and prosperity.

As for the future

War, famine, religious intolerance and disease were the traditional drivers for migration. Today, we can add economic, political and climatic conditions to this list of cross border migration in sub-Sahara Africa. It might be the case in the future, that rapid per capita economic development, universal access to electricity, and crops and livestock designed to withstand the vagaries of the weather, might stem the flow of future migrants traveling hundreds of miles to seek work in South Africa and further afield.

SEE MORE: Africa you never expected by Robin Wylie

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.