Moodley on McDonald, 'On Borders: Perspectives on International Migration in Southern Africa'

David A. McDonald, ed.
Vadi Moodley

David A. McDonald, ed. On Borders: Perspectives on International Migration in Southern Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xiv + 303 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-23268-9.

Reviewed by Vadi Moodley (School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Durban-Westville) Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2002)

What makes reviewing this book easy is the fact that the editor, as well as the respective authors, position their strengths up front, and weaknesses are brazenly confronted. In respect of methodology, for example, the editor notes in the introduction: "There are anomalies in our data (highlighted where applicable) and mistakes were made and lessons learned. Nor is this book the 'final word' on cross-border migration in the region" (p. 7).

Having said that, David McDonald indicates that the book "does provide a unique and incomparable source of information" (p. 7) and uses compelling statistics to argue that the surveys "represent the most comprehensive set of migration-related data ever collected in Southern Africa" (p. 7). Foremost among the book's attributes is the impeccable scholarship it evidences. For example, the authors draw frequently, carefully and effectively, from significant primary-source materials. Even more impressive is the editor's effort to imbed the migration discourse within multiple layers of contextualisation and comparison.

Unlike many surveys, this book is written from a perspective-rich approach by giving the reader a clearly defined point of view in every chapter that could serve as an interpretive framework to be consciously accepted or rejected. It thus makes compelling reading of a subject as broad, abstract and fluid as cross-border migration in the South African region. As suggested by the author in chapter 6 (Belinda Dodson, "Women on the Move: Gender and Cross-border Migration to South Africa from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe"), "the impact of migration is difficult to assess in any absolute or objective sense, especially by those actually involved. Not only does it touch on virtually every aspect of life, but it represents a combination of costs and benefits that are not easy to disentangle, still less to weigh up" (p. 139). The chapters are thematically coherent and the reader may indeed ferret out clues about unbundling a lot more than movement across countries!

What resounds throughout the book is the editor's intention to create a framework for cross-border traffic from other African countries into South Africa. Included in this framework are the voices of foreign migrants representing attitudes and experiences towards migration. In chapter 8 (David McDonald, Lephophotho Mashike and Celia Golden, "The Lives and Times of International Migrants in Post-apartheid South Africa"), the data also allows for comparison of interviews in Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia. This makes a compelling story that offers insights into social, political, and economic forces that have operated in cross-border traffic issues by creating an opportunity to engage in a migration policy landscape for South Africa. As noted by the authors, "it is clear from the survey that cross-border migration is not going to disappear in South Africa, no matter how draconian an approach to immigration policy some commentators might like to see.... Immigration policy is a process of 'give-and-take' and South Africa must see itself as part of a larger pan-African group of nations" (p. 193).

The scholarship and clarity of the text make it an excellent source of information on the subject of cross-border migration by offering a powerful, pointed and compelling understanding of the various aspects of the subject. This includes the place of women on the move. Links between gender and international migration in the region remain poorly researched and in chapter 6, Belinda Dodson attempts to demystify the place of women in migration by dealing with women beyond the "residual category,: as those "left behind" (p. 121). The author makes a convincing argument through analysis that "in general female immigrants are more sophisticated than their male counterparts" (p. 126). In presenting the logistics of female migration, it was found that "not only do men and women display different patterns of migration, but the logistics of male and female migration differ too" (p. 133). In this study, it is clear that "women come to South Africa not as undocumented, would-be immigrants but as legal migrants" (p. 135). The author suggests that "democratic migration policy should therefore be based on relations between men and women, on families, households and communities, and not simply on genderless, atomistic 'persons'" (p. 139).

The different themes explored in each of the nine chapters may appear relatively discrete and perhaps lacking a clear sense of thematic progression. The chapters vacillate from understanding cross-border migration, to a historical overview, to "who" crosses borders, to women on the move, to suggesting future migration potential and finally conclude with South African attitudes to immigrants and immigration. However, the fundamental issue of cross-border migration is the tight, thematically-based story-line. A sense of purpose is created from one chapter to another through the use of rich comparison and insightful policy pronouncements about what the preceding chapters covered. The individual chapter themes support coherent and interrogated overarching theoretical critique that is introduced, contextualised and then dispensed with.

Considerable time is spent in the book arguing a case for the methodology used in the different chapters to achieve the "methodological rigour" which "has been one of the touchstones of the research and researchers went to great lengths to ensure representivity, reliability and confidentiality in their interviews" (p. 6). As the editor rightfully notes, this rigour is perhaps most important in the light of methodological inadequacies that have (mis)informed much recent work on cross-border migration in the region. In chapter 8, the authors note that this field is "one of the most contentious issues in the immigration debate in South Africa ... [and] there is no reliable methodology available for determining the actual number of non-citizens in South Africa" (p. 169). By acknowledging the sampling constraints, this study is able to develop strategies to deal with them by presenting comprehensive, more transparent, information that goes beyond the case study approach.

Although the book contributes towards a better public understanding of cross-border migration in Southern Africa and does "help to build a more rational and humane immigration policy framework in South Africa itself" (p. 10), it does not address the refugee issue. By assumption, this would imply a homogenous understanding of immigrants and refugees, the status of the latter being more specifically and legislatively contextualised.

Thoughtfully produced by several experts in the field, this book is arguably the most researched, authoritative, comprehensive and well-developed text on cross-border migration thus far, which gives fair potential for a new immigration regime in South Africa. To conclude, the in-depth analysis of migration issues and the detailed appendices makes it a useful text for academics and researchers in a wide spectrum of disciplines especially in Population Geography.

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Citation: Vadi Moodley. Review of McDonald, David A., ed., On Borders: Perspectives on International Migration in Southern Africa. H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews. July, 2002. URL:

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