This graph shows there’s a good reason why more South Africans are moving to ‘the big city’

 ·22 Apr 2018

While the idea of relocating from the country or a small town to the ‘big city’ has developed into something of a cliche, there’s a good reason more South Africans are continuing to make the move.

In a new Econ3x3 report published by Ivan Turok and Justin Visagie of the Human Sciences Research Council, the pair found that that as many as 385,000 people were lifted from poverty between 2008 and 2014 after moving from rural to urban areas and that their poverty levels were halved together with a fall in unemployment.

The report found that two-thirds of South Africa’s population now live in urban areas, up from only half in 1994. Notably, the Gauteng city region has grown more rapidly than other places, with net in-migration of 1.4 million people between 2001 and 2016.

Percentage of people below the income poverty line

“We calculated changes in the poverty rate for three groups: those who remained in rural areas (blue line), those in urban areas all the time (yellow line), and those who migrated from rural to urban areas (dashed orange line),” Turok said.

“While those who stayed where they were experienced a slight decline in poverty rates, those who migrated to an urban area experienced a sizeable decline, crossing the stark divide between rural and urban poverty levels.

“Before their move to the city, the large majority of migrants were destitute in their rural communities, with levels of poverty above 80% (i.e. more than 80% of individuals had a monthly income below the poverty line),” Turok said.

He added that, six years later, the level of income poverty for these migrants (now living in an urban environment) had more than halved to below 35%. Meanwhile, the poverty level for individuals who remained in the countryside stayed very high at 70% (i.e. it also declined from an initial level above 80%, but much less).


Importantly the researchers found that the decrease in poverty did not occur because migrants simply attached themselves to better-resourced urban households.

Rather, the evidence shows that migrants were successful in finding some kind of job, even if it was casual and low paid.

A total of 330,000 people moved into employment after migrating to an urban area. This meant that the expanded rate of unemployment for this group fell dramatically over the period: from 50% to almost 15%, with nearly 80% of previously unemployed migrants’ managing to find work in the urban area.

Half of these were previously unemployed and half were not economically active.

“It is difficult to disentangle the mixture of factors and forces that determine the success or failure of somebody’s relocation to the city,” Turok said.

“Still, the evidence suggests that migration is statistically significant in lifting many people out of income poverty, despite the other hardships they may face in the city.”

Read: What you need to know about Johannesburg’s major new housing laws

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