This paper discusses international migration in South Africa focusing on trends, policy and approach to migration management as well as public perceptions of migrants in the country. It indicates that,
due to its perceived economic prosperity and relative political stability, South Africa is the content’s unrivalled major destination for international migrants;
the country’s rights-based policies and approach to migration management are increasingly being replaced by a securitisation perspective with detrimental effects for migrants; and
public perceptions of migrants in South Africa are characterized by negative attitudes, resentment and xenophobia whose violent manifestation (xenophobic violence) increasingly threatens migrants’ lives and livelihoods.
International migration trends in South Africa
South Africa has a long history of international migration dating back to the colonial era (South Africa was first colonized by the Netherlands in the mid-17th century and later by Great Britain) with an influx of European settlers in the 19th century and labour migration that followed the discovery of diamonds and gold in the country. During that period, international labour migrants included mineral prospectors from Europe and mine workers from the region and China.
Post-apartheid South Africa has experienced a significant rise in mixed and irregular migration consisting mainly of labour/economic migration and displacement.
South Africa is currently Africa’s migration hub or the ‘continent’s top migration destination’ as it hosts the highest number of international migrants on the continent.
Results of the 2011 national census show that, in 2011, African migrants made up the majority (75.3 per cent) of South Africa’s international migrants, followed by migrants from Europe (8.2 per cent) and Asia (4.7 per cent). Among the African migrants, citizens from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries made up 68 per cent with Zimbabwe contributing 45 per cent of all SADC immigrants in South Africa.
International migration numbers discussed above include refugees and asylum seekers. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), South Africa was home to 66,596 refugees and 84,316 asylum seekers in 2022.
Besides being an attractive country of destination, South Africa is also a country of origin for international migrants. According to UN DESA, the number of South African-born people living outside the country stood at roughly 915,000 in 2020.
South Africa’s migration policy and approach to migration management
Migration policy in South Africa has evolved in service of two mutually re-enforcing objectives: national security and socio-economic development.
Through the adoption of the Refugees Act (RA) in 1998, South African migration policy, for the first time, made specific provisions for the entry and regularization of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. In line with the rights-based and inclusive 1996 Constitution
Similarly, the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 (whose objective is to offer a safe, secure and beneficial migration governance, through proper management of the admission, residence and departure of immigrants) is also human rights-based.
Analysts and observers note that the rights-based approach to migration management is recently increasingly being replaced by a securitisation perspective through which the state views migration as a threat to national security and to the citizens’ socio-economic prosperity.
Public perceptions of migrants in South Africa: negative attitudes and xenophobia
In South Africa, research consistently documents strong negative and xenophobic attitudes, resentment and hostility towards refugees and immigrants among the general public, government officials and institutions of authority.
Xenophobic attitudes result from – and are in turn reinforced by – constant scapegoating by the public, government officials and political leaders, who, without any empirical evidence, blame foreign nationals for service delivery failures, and make them responsible for most of the country’s socio-economic ills including high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime; diseases; drugs, prostitution and moral degeneration, depletion of social services; and ‘stealing’ – or ‘illegitimate’ competition for – jobs, business opportunities and even women.
In South Africa, xenophobia manifests in various ways at both institutional and public level. Institutional xenophobia is for example visible through denying immigrants access to services to which they are legally entitled; selective enforcement of laws; harassment, intimidation and extortion by state agents particularly the police and immigration officials; unlawful detentions and deportations, and vilifying pronouncements by government officials. Public manifestations include everyday street-level abuse; discriminatory stereotyping and dehumanizing remarks, extortion by local gangs; threats; evictions from residences and business premises; and collective violence commonly known as xenophobic violence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, xenophobic violence is the most visible and the most dangerous manifestation of xenophobia in South Africa. This type of violence has become a longstanding feature in post-apartheid South Africa. Since 1994, tens of thousands of people have been harassed, attacked, or killed because of their status as outsiders or foreign nationals. Its main characteristics include murder, assaults, looting, robbery, arson attacks, and mass displacement.
Research evidence indicates that xenophobic violence in South Africa is caused by a complex interplay between (a) underlying conditions, (b) proximate causes and (c) precipitants and triggers. Underlying conditions include socio-economic deprivation, history of group conflict and violence, and xenophobia. Analysts argue that, while rooted in segregation and discriminatory policies and practices of the apartheid regime, these underlying conditions are exacerbated by the post-apartheid state’s service delivery failures. Crush & Ramanchandran note for example that, “the failures of the government to deal with endemic poverty, joblessness, lack of shelter and basic services had led to the scapegoating of foreign migrants by frustrated citizens.”
Increasing xenophobic populism and ongoing xenophobic violence are evidence that neither South Africa’s government nor civil society has been able to devise effective preventative or response mechanisms. Indeed, in a report on xenophobic violence in South Africa published in 2021 Misago, Kabiri & Mlilo note that “Despite the recently adopted National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the official South African government's response to xenophobia and related violence has been characterised by denialism, lack of political will and impunity for all actors involved.”