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Review of Circular Migration in Zimbabwe and Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa


By Hannah Cross

Circular Migration in Zimbabwe and Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa. Deborah Potts. James Currey, Oxford, 2010. Pp. 300. ISBN. 978-1-84701-023-0 (hb). £50.

Deborah Potts’ research proposal on migration to Harare was sent to Professor Chris Mutambirwa at the University of Zimbabwe in 1984. This was the start of a longitudinal research collaboration that would continue from the 1980s into the 1990s and 2000s. This book is distinguished not only by its presentation of directly comparable surveys from these decades, but also by its depth of analysis. It shows the capacity of migration research to capture the broader effects of social and economic transformation. It is useful to students and scholars of urban processes and urban-rural linkages as well as to those interested in African migrations.

This book informs readers on Zimbabwe’s economic trajectory from independence in 1980, which was followed by a decade in which Harare’s formal labour market ‘worked’, through to structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s and economic collapse in the 2000s. There is a chapter (9) which assesses the changes to the urban economic landscape produced by Operation Murambatsvina, a ‘revenge attack on urban voters’ that in 2005 destroyed 38,065 ‘illegal’ houses, 8945 small and medium enterprises, and 78 people’s markets in three urban areas of Harare (p215). It failed to ruralise those who were displaced but this attempt to drive out the urban poor transformed the balance of relative living standards between urban and rural environments. Zimbabwe has its particular timeline and characteristics of post-independence development but there are phenomena examined in the book that can be related to other African cities.

There is an impressive table on page 20 that compiles raw data from 14 countries between Mauritania and Mozambique. For periods between the 1980s and 2000s, it shows how growth in urban settlements relates to national growth and notes the trends for counter-urbanising (e.g. Cotonou, Maputo, copperbelt towns), ‘negligible net in-migration’ (Kumasi in Ghana, Nakuru in Kenya) and net out-migration (Abidjan, Beira, Mozambique) inter-alia. African countries have shared structural economic processes of which the outcomes have included large-scale informalisation and displacement. Riots emerged in Dakar, for instance, when in 2007, President Wade attempted to ‘clean up’ streets on which thousands of informal vendors depended. The ‘reinvention of the wheel’ that incorporates academic approaches from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa thereby convinces me to look beyond regional paradigms for explanation, an approach that would also benefit from the incorporation of northern African research.

In chapters 2 and 3, the author critically reviews academic approaches to circular migration and urban processes in tropical Africa, subdivided into West and East, and in Southern Africa. This reveals the continuing importance of circular migration elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa “in the absence of institutionalised enforcement or pressures” (p58-9). The book challenges the conceptualisation of circular migration by linear models, whereby permanent migration is supposed to replace circular migration as urban economies develop. I consider that the emphasis in West Africa on “social and cultural drivers of continuing circulation and links to rural settings” (as opposed to economic drivers) is more linked to emergent academic approaches than to the pre-colonial roots of these movements (p188). Having said that, it is this regional comparison that strengthens Potts’ robust and nuanced analysis of migration in Harare, as it will do for other researchers of African migration.

Following the review of approaches to circular migration elsewhere in Africa, chapter 4 examines urban livelihoods in Harare between 1985, when £1 was worth Z$ 1.6, to radical change by which £1 equalled 1000 trillion of the original Zimbabwean dollars in July 2008 (p74).  Chapters 5 - 8 focus on the survey data from Harare, beginning in chapter 5 with the research questions, methodology and findings. The implications of certain enquiries are explained. Asking about motivations, for example, represents a “simplistic approach in that it rarely offers insight into structural forces” (p107). It is argued in contrast that: “while migrants’ individual characteristics and attitudes affect their plans, the overarching structural constraint of the city economy has been shown to be strongly determinant” (p131). The empirical data is however richly detailed and incorporates information about gender, access to land, primary source of income, plans for ‘out-migration’, birthplaces and place of residence.

In sum, this book contains substantial analysis of key debates in African migration studies and masters the difficult balance between structure and agency. The main contribution is in its examination of urban processes and urban-rural linkages. The core of the book presents the findings of long-term qualitative research but these findings do not stray far from their theoretical and broader geographical context.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 95-97]

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