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History of Migration | South Africa |

South Africa International Migration in South Africa

History of Migration

Berenike Schauwinhold

/ 6 Minuten zu lesen

Since its colonization by the Netherlands and Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, South Africa has attracted immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world. However, most immigrants come from Southern Africa. They hope to find work and better prospects for their future at the Cape of Good Hope.

Indian market-woman und customers at Victoria Street Market in Durban 1953: Due to shortage of labor, the colonial powers Britain and the Netherlands introduced slaves they had seized from other parts of Africa as well as Asia. (© picture-alliance/akg)

The Historical Development of Migration since the 18th Century

A decisive era in South Africa’s history of migration was the systematic colonization of the present-day Republic of South Africa by the Dutch starting in 1652 and by the British starting in 1795. In 1652 the Cape of Good Hope was founded as a port for trade and provisions on the way to India and China. As trade increased, it developed into the first permanent European settlement (Cape Town). From the beginning of colonization, there was a shortage of labor to manage the newly settled area and further develop it for Europeans. The colonial powers Britain and the Netherlands both attempted to relieve this shortage by recruiting Europeans to settle in the colonies; however, only few followed this call. For this reason, they introduced slaves they had seized from other parts of Africa as well as Asia. The number of slaves soon exceeded that of European settlers. By 1833, when the British Empire prohibited slavery, the colonial powers had already brought approximately 65,000 slaves to South Africa. Of these, 26 percent were from the mainland of Africa (primarily from East Africa), 26 percent from India, 25 percent from Madagascar and 23 percent from Indonesia. Furthermore, also indigenous population groups were forced to work on European settlers’ farms.

The Migrant Labor System and the South African Mining Industry in the 20th Century

The discovery of large diamond and gold deposits at the end of the 19th century triggered strong economic development in South Africa. The newly developed mining industry attracted not only gold prospectors from all over the world, but also thousands of Black workers from the neighboring regions. Laborers coming to work in the South African mines came primarily from Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland. Additional mineworkers were recruited at the turn of the century from China, while skilled labor was mainly recruited from Europe. In 1906, the people working in the mines included 94,000 people of African descent, 51,000 people of Chinese descent, and 18,000 people of European descent.

May 31, 1910 marked the founding of the South African Union, which then became the Republic of South Africa in 1961. In order to control the migration movements within the South African Union, the White government instated a central recruiting system for labor migration. Starting in 1901 agents of the Witwatersrand Native Labor Association (WNLA) were sent out to communities throughout southern Africa to recruit mineworkers. In 1912, the Native Recruiting Corporation (NRC) began to recruit also Black indigenous people to work in the mines. In order to control Black laborers, the government began passing its first migration and immigration laws in 1913. According to this legislation, only male laborers were allowed to enter the country, and they were not allowed to bring their families. They were separated into isolated, barrack-like housing and were only allowed to stay up to one year in the country. Black laborers had no rights, and their residential status did not allow them a path to permanent settlement. Using so-called Passport Laws, the White minority in South Africa increasingly restricted the mobility of the Black population. This applied to the internal migration of native Black people, as well as to Black people from other countries who came to South Africa for work. The centrally organized recruitment system and legal regulation eliminated any competition among the mines in their search for workers and ensured that the laborers were paid extremely low wages. This practically blocked the development of a free labor market and helped the mining industry monopolize the labor market. This migrant labor system would shape South African migration history throughout the 20th century.

Even today South Africa is one of the most important mining countries in the world. Since the mining industry is an important employer for the entire southern African region, the neighboring countries continue to be politically and economically dependent on South Africa, as well as on workers’ remittances back to their countries of origin. This dependency strengthened South Africa’s economic and political dominance in the region. Migrant labor in South African mining reached its climax in the 1970s, when approximately 30,000 of the mineworkers were foreigners – that is, more than 80 percent of all people employed in the mining industry at that time.

Starting in the mid-1970s the South African government changed its policy due to the country’s high unemployment. Instead of hiring foreigners to work in the mines, the focus shifted to mainly Black workers from the Homelands. Due to the changed economic situation in the 1980s, the economic relevance of the mining industry subsided. During this time many mines closed, which led to a rapid decrease in the number of labor migrants in the mining industry. The proportion of foreign labor in the mining industry was never again as high as it was in the 1970s. Between 1920 and 1990 each member of the present-day South African Development Community (SADC) had sent migrant laborers to South Africa.

Forms of Migration during Apartheid

The state-organized and legally stipulated racial segregation policy between 1947 and 1994 known as Apartheid influenced all migration movements within and to South Africa. Between 1960 and 1980 alone, the Apartheid government authorized the forced resettlement of more than 3.4 million people, 2.7 million of them were Black people being relocated to their assigned Homelands. The political aim was the eradication of so-called “black spots”, which referred to the land owned by Black people in regions intended only for White people. Since the South African government viewed the Homelands as quasi-independent countries, the forced resettlement of the Black population led to their denaturalization out of the Republic of South Africa. Black South Africans thus lost all of their residence and civil rights, becoming foreigners in South Africa.

With civil wars and humanitarian crises in neighboring countries, South Africa became an attractive destination for refugees, especially starting in the 1980s. Due to their political ideology, the South African government attempted to keep refugees away by using stronger border controls and more rigorous restrictions on refugee status. However, they occasionally tolerated the acceptance of refugees in the Homelands near the borders.

In contrast to Black people, White people were allowed to settle in South Africa. Especially starting in the 1960s, with the end of colonial rule and with the independence of newly founded states, many people of European descent from Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe migrated to South Africa and were welcomed by the Apartheid regime. South Africa did not, however, only have immigration. Since the 1980s many skilled workers have been leaving the country. Since the end of Apartheid, this emigration has increased due to problematic economic developments, political instability, and inner conflicts (see the chapter on emigration).

Current Developments

When Apartheid came to an end, so did South Africa’s international isolation. Since then South Africa has gone through fundamental transformations and has experienced further economic and social development. It has an economically and politically dominant position in the SADC-region, due in particular to its relatively good economic conditions and its military strength. Since the end of the 20th century, the number of immigrants to South Africa has increased, migrating especially from neighboring African countries in search of better employment opportunities. The country’s migration policy does not, however, allow for the adequate use of the potential which immigration could mean for the overall economic development of South Africa. The migration policy reforms after the end of Apartheid are in no way comprehensive.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile South Africa.



  1. For this text we differentiate between White and Black, because it is unavoidable in the analysis of migrant movements in South Africa. Belonging to a particular group is still marked by one’s skin colour, and this still has an influence upon one’s life and opportunities. Moreover, in order to improve the readability of the text, we have decided not to differentiate between the feminine and masculine forms. If we are not able to use a neutral form, we use the masculine form.

  2. Wellmer (1976).

  3. The Passport Laws included different laws. All of these required that people residing in South Africa must always be able to show their passport verifying their "race", their place of birth, and their residential status.

  4. Crush (2000); Wentzel/Tlabela (2005).

  5. Homelands refer to the isolated regions set aside for the population of African descent by the Native Land Act of 1913. Some of these areas were regarded by South Africa as separate states.

  6. Crush/McDonald (2000); Wentzel/Tlabela (2005).

  7. The South African Development Community (SADC) is a regional development community aiming to improve development, peace, security, and economic growth. Moreover, this community attempts to decrease poverty and improve the quality of life. Member states are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (see SADC 2012).

  8. Crush (2006).

  9. Segatti (2011a).


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Berenike Schauwinhold is a student in the master's program "Economic and Social Geography" at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. Email: E-Mail Link: