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ALMA Reviews Blog: The new ‘diaspora trap’ framework: Explaining return migration from South Africa to Zimbabwe beyond the ‘failure-success’ framework

Dr Divane Nzima (University of the Free State, South Africa) and Philani Moyo (University of Fort Hare, South Africa)

Published in 2017 by Migration Letters, 14(3), 355–370.

Available at: https://doi.org/10.33182/ml.v14i3.349


The authors of this paper are based in South Africa: Dr Divane Nzima is a Sociology lecturer at the University of the Free State and Prof. Philani Moyo is the director of the Fort Hare Institute of Social & Economic Research (FHISER) at the University of Fort Hare. The paper introduces the concept of the “new diaspora trap”, which is a phenomenon arising from the long history of labour migration from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Nzima and Moyo argue that the dominant theories of return migration – namely, the New Economics of Labour Migration and the Neo-Classical Economic theory of migration – have largely adopted the “failure-success” hypothesis, which posits a binary between failure and success as determinants of return migration. In this case, migrants return either after having achieved a successful migration experience as perceived by their home community or after a failed experience that left them unable to continue living in the diaspora. Nzima and Moyo are critical of these narratives, which they see as limiting the extent and depth of understanding the migration experiences of immigrants from Zimbabwe to South Africa. They argue that the failure-success notion indexes success or failure in economic terms and ignores other factors that may influence a decision not to return, such as marriage with a South African spouse, which enhances social integration in the country of destination. In their article, the authors adopt a structuralist approach that highlights the contextual factors that may influence the decision by Zimbabwean migrants either to return or stay put in South Africa. They argue that due to circumstances beyond their control, most Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa are subject to the “diaspora trap” and do not return to Zimbabwe, in contrast to the conception of the dominant theories of return migration. The “new diaspora trap framework” of the authors considers differing contexts in explaining (non)return migration and note that permanent settlement is not always voluntary.

The paper acknowledges the long history of Zimbabwean migration to South Africa and uses it as a basis for developing the theory of the “diaspora trap”. It is thus part of the new scholarship that departs from the longstanding tradition of conceiving of Zimbabwean migration to South Africa as temporary – a concept that limits the space for engaging with findings that lean towards permanence and permanent temporality. 

The fresh approach of the authors is critical in the context of protracted crisis situations such as the Zimbabwean case, where some migrants may have hoped to return to their homeland in the immediate term, yet are unable to do so due to the continuing economic crisis. It also introduces important nuances to the economic logic that whether a migrant fails or succeeds, he/she is inclined to return at some point – given that the decision to return is not that straightforward. This is particularly the case in the context of South Africa, where, as the authors argue, some migrants do not experience the success they had anticipated and therefore postpone a return.

The article could have benefited from further engagement with the notion of permanence, which may not be a clear-cut proposition since, as they have noted, it is largely out of the migrants’ hands. In other words, the permanency that they refer to is often a result of circumstances. Without a more precise definition of the nature of the permanency being discussed, the study risks obscuring the nuances that force Zimbabwean migrants to postpone a return to their home country. The authors also need to more deeply examine their data and explore whether such a return is, in fact, desirable. Often there is the assumption that migrants intend to return to their country of origin, yet such a return may not necessarily be as appealing as remaining in the destination country. Apart from the structural constraints and other economy-related issues, are there no immigrants that exercise the choice not to return or that find the prospect of returning to Zimbabwe unappealing? An engagement with such possibilities would enrich the discussion, especially in the context of further theorising on issues of permanent temporality as a dimension of permanency amongst Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa.

Reviewed by: Khangelani Moyo

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Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe

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