The formal labour markets and economies of many cities in sub-Saharan Africa have been very weak for decades and this has led to significant adaptations in the nature of the livelihoods of most urban households. The lack of formal and reasonably paid jobs has also had a strong impact on population growth in cities, although this is often not recognized. This article reviews some of these trends and illustrates them with case study material from Harare, Zimbabwe. There, many urban residents have increasingly struggled to get by and their perceptions of the city and their future within it show a strong negative trend. Links to rural areas and the possibility of making livelihoods there in the future have become more important. These adaptations build on the long history of rural–urban linkages in sub-Saharan Africa but contemporary practices, including patterns of circular migration, are influenced by the harsh realities of African urban economies. The decisions and future plans of some migrants may not, therefore, fit with their aspirations – and the degree and nature of this mismatch are influenced by factors such as gender, age and position in the urban household, and links to rural areas. It is suggested that it helps to analyse the consequent migration patterns in terms of a framework in which migrants’ decisions to stay in the city or leave it are conceptualized as either willing or reluctant.