Temporary Urbanites? Industrialization, Urbanization and Labor Migration in Colonial Africa: Southern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo Compared

Katharine Frederick, Utrecht University
Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Utrecht University

In the early 20th century, towns in sub-Saharan Africa had only gradually developed. By the 1940s, however, some cities expanded impressively, mostly attracting rural Africans responding to the increasing demand for urban industrial labor, instigated by colonial capital. Southern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo were among the most successful industrializers in colonial-era SSA and consequently saw significant migration from rural to urban zones. Despite this similarity in the take-off of rural-urban migration in the two colonies, the nature of migration and urbanization differed considerably. In Congo, the urban labor force “stabilized” relatively quickly, with migrants increasingly settling in cities. In S-Rhodesia, conversely, urban migration would remain overwhelmingly temporary: African laborers tended to return to rural areas after relatively brief stints working in town. How to explain these differences between S-Rhodesia and Congo? We adopt a “systems approach” to analyze how migration flows are shaped within a wider environmental and institutional context. This framework engages with structural factors, including industrial development, wage structures, and colonial policies such as welfare and housing measures, which both affected and were affected by migratory flows. Moreover, it takes into account developments in both sending and receiving regions to identify dynamic feedback mechanisms affecting rural-urban migratory flows and the degree of labor stabilization in cities. We argue that varying colonial institutions and geopolitical factors affected rural-urban migration systems in both regions differently. Specifically, different policies regarding land and labor markets, related to different composition and interests of white settlers, helped produce divergent levels of urban labor stabilization. The character of rural-urban migration, as well as choices migrants made in different colonial contexts, in turn impacted social policies in rural and urban zones. We begin in the early 1920s, - the beginning of industrial development and rural-urban migration - and conclude with decolonization in the 1960s.

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 Presented in Session 252. The Economy and Markets of Migration Flows