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African migrants in SA: what research and statistics reveal

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Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency Foreign nationals silhouetted by a blue sky in the Cape Town CBD as they wait for assistance at the Refugee Reception Office on the Foreshore.

By Ndoh Mengen

African immigrants in South Africa have been nicknamed “kwerekwere”. They are scapegoated by community residents, workers, politicians and public officials in South Africa. Fear and hatred against foreign nationals in a given population is Xenophobia.

For example, most South Africans mistakenly believe that foreigners are the cause of crime, poverty or inequality, nor worsened healthcare service provision in South Africa. Immigrants’ share of prisoners is far below their share of the overall population.

It is not the existence of immigrants or for some, their lack of proper documentation, that government and society should be paying attention to, rather the Department of Home Affairs’ breakdown of immigrant services should be a concern.

According to XenoWatch, more than 630 people have died as a result of Xenophobia in South Africa since 1994, about 124,000 people have been displaced, and 4,849 shops have been looted. The toll bared the difference between Western Caucasian immigrants and African immigrants, who have been negatively stereotyped as “criminals”, “job stealers” and “diseased”.

Nearly three decades after the end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa is faced with a triple threat of challenges; inequality, unemployment and poverty. About 7.5 million young people in South Africa are unemployed. More than half of the population lives in poverty, and about 12 million people are hungry. South Africa has a Gini coefficient of 0. 65 – 10 percent of the population in South Africa enjoys 80 percent of the country’s wealth. The vast majority of South Africans under this degree of socio-economic pressure usually blame the “other”.

The general population in South Africa view foreigners as a threat to national sovereignty. They have been influenced by inflammatory remarks by public officials and politicians who reinforce misconceptions about foreigners. Misconceptions that foreigners contribute significantly to crime in South Africa, increase the level of inequality, occupy jobs that have belonged to locals and put a strain on the healthcare system of South Africa.

This paper will debunk these public misconceptions while referencing data and statistics that may point the reader in the ‘right’ direction.

It is a general social consensus in South Africa that the country is full of foreigners. According to the 2021 South African Social Attitudes Survey, nearly half the sample thinks there are between 17 million and 40 million immigrants in the country. This notion is incorrect. According to Statistics South Africa, foreigners make up just about 6.5 percent of the population in South Africa, with about 3.95 million foreigners.

Arguably, the most serious complaint locals have about foreigners is that they take their jobs. While most of the evidence of this claim is based on accounts of personal experiences, research has shown that, generally, foreign nationals generate jobs for locals in South Africa. Foreigners are more likely to start a business and employ South Africans.

A common misconception is that foreigners cause high crime in South Africa. In 2016, 66 percent of locals believed that foreigners were the common perpetrators of crime in the country. However, when people were asked who the main perpetrators of crime were in their neighbourhoods, they said they were locals. According to ISS, at the beginning of 2015, foreigners were targeted by police and 15,396 undocumented foreign nationals were repatriated from South Africa. However, over the past five years, murders and robberies have increased significantly. There is thus no relationship between international migration in South Africa and the crime rate. Police Minister Bheki Cele, speaking recently about crime in South Africa, has said that foreign nationals are not the problem. There is no evidence to prove that foreign-born nationals are criminals or commit most crimes in the country.

Recently, there have been heated socio-political debates about the existence of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants in South Africa. The Soweto Parliament calls for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, and the highly controversial Dudula movement seemingly calls for the deportation of all foreigners living in South Africa. While it is true that there are illegal immigrants in South Africa, most enter South Africa legally but fail to regularise their stay in the country due to the poor management of the immigration policy in South Africa. The Department of Home Affairs struggles with a visa backlog partly owing to departmental dysfunction and corruption, which also affects South Africans.

The cost of a visa application is exorbitant.

Another misconception South Africans have concerning foreigners is that they affect the national healthcare system negatively. The health MEC, Dr Phophi Ramathuba was recently under the spotlight for berating a foreign woman in a video that went viral. In the video she remarks that the woman is part of a wider problem in South Africa, i.e., foreigners, overburdening the national healthcare system. However, foreigners who make up under 10 percent of the population cannot be the cause of the ailing healthcare system in South Africa.

The removal of undocumented and or documented immigrants in South Africa will not result in reduced crime, poverty and inequality nor, an improved healthcare service provision. Instead of calling for the removal of foreign nationals in South Africa, the government should consider implementing proper management of the immigration policy in South Africa. The broad-based working class of South Africa that feels so threatened by the existence of foreigners, should hold the government accountable for the problems in the country.

Mengen is a postgraduate student of African Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

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