Lest the rhetoric begin: migration, population and the environment in Southern Africa

Geoforum. 1999 Feb;30(1):13-25. doi: 10.1016/s0016-7185(98)00035-9.


In the spirited debate over cross-border migration in southern Africa there is one issue that has been conspicuously absent: the environment. The issue is raised in this article not because it necessarily deserves to be part of the debate--it will be argued, in fact that one needs to tread very carefully when drawing any linkages between migration and the environment--but because it has received an inordinate amount of attention in the academic and popular press in other parts of the world (particularly in the US) and could influence South African immigration policy and debates. In this article the authors look specifically at Thomas Homer-Dixon's influential work on environmental scarcity and migration and critically assess its relevance in the southern African context. A brief review of the history of migration and immigration policy in the region is followed by a theoretical and empirical critique of Homer Dixon's writings. It is acknowledged in the article that environmental degradation can (and does) contribute to forced migration and violent conflict in southern Africa, but it is also argued that Homer-Dixon misses some fundamental points about the political economy of (post) apartheid southern Africa and in doing so presents a very problematic interpretation of the causes and effects of migration in the region. The potential for these theories to lend themselves to a reactionary, closed-border approach to immigration in South Africa is also discussed and forms part of the impetus for the writing of this paper.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Africa South of the Sahara
  • Africa, Southern
  • Demography
  • Developing Countries
  • Emigration and Immigration*
  • Environment*
  • Population
  • Population Dynamics*
  • Public Policy*
  • South Africa