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Immigration | South Africa |

South Africa International Migration in South Africa


Kim Katharina Runge

/ 12 Minuten zu lesen

South Africa, being the economic motor in the region of Southern Africa, attracts numerous labor migrants. For a long time the country's immigration policy was based on racist selection criteria. Since the end of Apartheid, this has changed. Xenophobia is, however, still widely spread in South African society.

Ore mining in South African mine: The mining industry still employs many foreign workers. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Until 1995 the long-term immigration of Black migrants to South Africa was regulated differently than that of White migrants; these regulations granted permission to immigrate primarily to White people (cf. the section on "Migration Policy"). The White immigrant population rose from approximately 18,000 in 1960 to over 160,000 in 1991.

The end of Apartheid did not lead to the feared mass emigration of the White population, nor did it lead to an uncontrollable influx of Black migrants. In the decade between 1990 and 2000 there was actually less migration to South Africa than before. However, the proportion of migrants of African descent steadily increased.

Table 1: Legal migration to South Africa, 1990-2004

YearLegal immigrantsPercentage of African migrants (%)
1990 14.49911,2
1992 8.68614,6
1994 6.39825,4
2000 3.05327,2
2004 10.71448,9
Total (1990-2004) 110.121 27

Crush, J. (2008), South Africa - Policy in the Face of Xenophobia, Externer Link: (accessed: 2-15-2014), own illustration.

As Table 1 shows, immigration did not increase significantly again until 2000. On the whole, among all people residing in South Africa, the proportion of those who were born outside of the country grew from 3.8 percent in 1990 to 4.5 percent in 2013.

It is not surprising that South Africa is referred to as the "Rainbow Nation" because the population is very heterogeneous, bringing together people with diverse cultural backgrounds. According to the census from the year 2011, 80 percent of the population refers to him-/herself as African, about 9 percent as White or Person of Color, respectively, and 2.5 percent as Asian.

Labor Migration

In the early years of Dutch and British settlement, people were violently seized from the rest of Africa, India, Indonesia, and Madagascar and brought to South Africa. These people were forced to work as slaves for the South African labor market. The employment of labor migrants became more significant at the end of the 19th century. In 1880 only 1,400 migrants were employed in South Africa; only 19 years later, this population grew to 97,000, 60 percent of them from Mozambique.

Even after the end of Apartheid, the system of recruiting foreign labor was largely maintained. The importance of the mining sector and the total number of employees in this industry sank initially between 1990 and 2000, while the proportion of foreign mining workers grew. Since 2000 this trend has turned again. With the Immigration Act of 2002 it became more difficult to recruit foreign labor instead of South African citizens. At the same time, the gold price rose, driving up the demand for labor, which is now covered more often by the existing domestic labor market. As before, most foreign workers in the mining industry come form Lesotho and Mozambique.

Table 2: Origin of workers in South African gold mines, 1990-2006

YearSouth AfricaBotswana Lesotho MozambiqueSwazilandPercentage of foreign laborTotal
1990 199.81014.60999.70744.59017.75747376.473
1992 166.26112.78193.51950.65116.27351339.485
1994 142.83911.09989.23756.19715.89255315.264
2000 99.5756.49458.22457.0349.36057230.687
2004 121.3693.92448.96248.9187.59847230.771
2006 164.9892.99246.08246.7077.12438267.894

Crush, J. (2008), South Africa - Policy in the Face of Xenophobia, Externer Link: (accessed: 2-15-2014), own illustration.

Because many skilled laborers are emigrating from South Africa, the 2002 Immigration Act created quota regulations establishing which economic sectors need skilled foreign workers. Especially in the health sector there is an extreme shortage of skilled labor, which cannot currently be filled completely, even with foreign labor. Nonetheless, South Africa’s policy remains restrictive; aside from the strict quota, migration to South Africa is difficult, even for skilled workers.

Since 2000 there has been an exceptionally high increase in migration from Zimbabwe. In 2011, 15 percent of all temporary residence permits and 25 percent of all temporary work permits were issued to Zimbabweans (cf. Table 3). Overall, Zimbabweans received almost half of the temporary permits issued to migrants from the southern African region, followed by immigrants from Lesotho (8.5 percent) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (8.2 percent).

Table 3: Temporary residence and work permits, 2011

Origin of temporary residence and work permit holders TotalThereof work permitsOrigin of work permit holders (in %)
Alle Länder 106.17320.673100
Übersee 48.63111.88557
Afrika 57.4608.76542
SADC 31.7966.32931
Simbabwe 15.6285.06925
Lesotho 2.7061071
DRK 2.6012141

Changwe Nshimbi, C./Fioramonti, L. (2014), The Will to Integrate: South Africa’s Responses to Regional Migration from the SADC Region, African Development Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 52–63; own illustration.

Zimbabwe is in an economically and politically desolate situation. The unemployment is estimated to be 80 percent. The Immigration Act of 2002 eased the employment of highly skilled migrants from Zimbabwe. Unlike the majority of migrants from southern Africa, many Zimbabweans are highly skilled and thus do not work in the South African mines, but mainly in the health sector – with devastating consequences for Zimbabwe, itself. While in 1995 Zimbabwe still had an average of 7,000 patients per doctor, by 2004 it had almost reached 18,000 patients per doctor. A survey from 2002 showed that 68 percent of medical personnel are considering leaving Zimbabwe. Already in 2000 the largest group of doctors who had emigrated (38.7 percent) had moved to South Africa.

Irregular Migration

There is a long tradition of irregular migration to South Africa. The labor migrants from the different countries in the southern African region, who often entered the country and worked without appropriate permits, were necessary for the economic development of South Africa. Stable migration relations arose in particular with Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Malawi. Migrants from these countries used existing family and community migration networks in order to find work in South Africa.

After decades of tolerating irregular migration the laws were made more restrictive in the 1960s. The Apartheid government then regarded any immigration of Black population groups as irregular if they did not arrive within the state-regulated migrant labor system, and the government began instating very strict border controls. Nevertheless, irregular migration continued due to the existing networks and the demand for cheap labor.

After the end of Apartheid, the scope of irregular migration and the irregular migrants’ countries of origin changed. Although most of the migrants continued to arrive from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, or Lesotho, immigration from other African states, as well as from Asia, is also on the rise. Most of these irregular migrants are so-called "overstayers": they first arrive legally with a tourist visa and then remain in the country after their visas have expired. The actual number of irregular migrants is very difficult to estimate. In a report of the South African Police Service from 2008/09, it was assumed that up to six million people could be living in South Africa without a valid visa. However, another report from 2003 by the agency Statistics South Africa estimated between 500,000 and one million irregular migrants.

In any case the number of deportations has risen: since 1994 the Republic of South Africa has deported more than 1.7 million irregular migrants. While 90,000 migrants were deported in 1994, this number rose to 150,000 in 2004 and to over 300,000 in 2007. The largest group sent back was from Mozambique.

These numbers do not necessarily indicate a growth in irregular immigration to South Africa. They could be a result of the government taking more rigorous courses of action. Despite large numbers of deportations, since 1995 the government also repeatedly created extensive legalization programs. These are mainly a consequence of the failed restrictive policies, because deported migrants often return to the country within a short time.

Due to the restrictive policies, which offer almost no legal routes to immigrate, irregular migration is the only way many migrants can enter South Africa. The South African economy and its relative wealth is a strong pull factor, especially in the neighboring countries. For instance, for migrants from Zimbabwe, a country offering its population almost no employment opportunities, South Africa is a chance to escape economic despair.

Thanks to the migration networks which have grown over the last decades as well as a flourishing informal labor market, irregular migration is often successful. Especially migrant networks have a great influence on the decision to migrate. In a 2002 survey, 70 percent of the interviewed irregular migrants from Nigeria said that they knew someone in South Africa before they moved there.

South African employers often exploit irregular migrants, who mostly work in agriculture, but also in the service industry or in construction. Since they evade the regulations on labor rights and pay wages under the minimum wage, they profit from irregular migration. Large parts of the population see irregular migrants as competitors for jobs and as the cause of economic problems and crime.

Refugee Migration and Asylum

Before and during Apartheid

In the 17th century, long before the term refugee had become part of international law, there were already refugee migration movements to South Africa. The first refugees were the Huguenots from France, and later other European refugees came, including Jews from Russia and Lithuania before and during the Second World War. Even during the Apartheid regime, refugees were accepted if they were of European descent. These included, for instance, Belgians and Portuguese people fleeing from other African colonies (e.g. Congo, Angola, Mozambique), which had just gained independence.

However, Black African refugees were rejected by the Apartheid regime. In the 1980s, 350,000 Mozambicans fled to South Africa due to the civil war raging in their country of origin. Since the state refused to recognize their status as refugees, referring to them instead as irregular migrants, many of them were arrested and deported. Mozambicans were only able to find refuge in Gazankulu and Kangwane, two Homelands near the border. About 200 refugees lost their lives every year due to electrified border fences during the Apartheid era.

After Apartheid

In 1995, South Africa recognized the definition of refugees applied by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In the following year the government also signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees as well as its Additional Protocol from 1967. Nonetheless, until 1998 refugees and asylum-seekers were still treated as irregular immigrants according to the Aliens Control Act of 1991. This law authorized the arrest of irregular migrants for up to five years. This led to a very insecure legal status for many people, especially for those who had fled to South Africa from Mozambique in the 1980s. The 1998 Refugee Act was the first refugee legislation to be passed in South Africa. Implemented in 2000, this law and the Immigration Act of 2002 are the foundation for the current treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. In August 2011 the Amendment Bill and the Refugee Amendment Act were also passed with the aim of structuring the asylum system more efficiently and effectively.

And yet, since the early democratic South Africa first focused on domestic priorities and perceived immigrants and refugees from the rest of Africa as a threat, only a low level of financial resources was provided for developing this asylum system. To this day, the weak asylum system cannot deal appropriately with the challenges associated with the high number of asylum-seekers. In 2009 alone, 172,302 of the 223,324 asylum applications could not be processed due to lacking resources; the number of applications yet to be processed is therefore high.

This problem is also the result of the growing number of asylum-seekers. While the number of asylum-seekers in 1996 was 14,360, South Africa registered 106,600 new asylum-seekers in 2011, more than any other country in the world. Although the number of asylum applications has gone down slightly since its climax in 2009 (over 222,000 asylum applications), the UNHCR estimates that a total of over 350,000 refugees and asylum-seekers were living in South Africa at the end of 2014. At the end of 2012 over 230,000 asylum-seekers and 65,000 recognized refugees were residing in South Africa.

Most asylum-seekers come from African countries such as Congo, Somalia, Angola, Ethiopia, or Zimbabwe. The reasons for applying for asylum vary considerably. In Congo and Angola, there have been repeated armed conflicts. Numerous civil wars have driven already many millions of people to flee from these two countries, for instance to South Africa. A large number of refugees also arrived from Somalia in an attempt to escape sustained turmoil and the consequences of the civil war that lasted until 2012.

South Africa is surrounded by some of the poorest countries in the world. Sixty-eight percent of the population residing in Zimbabwe in 2012 lived under the poverty line, in the Democratic Republic of Congo this group makes up 71 percent of the population. Many Africans are thus fleeing not only from political persecution or civil wars, but also from economic despair and absolute poverty in their countries of origin.

The restrictive South African migration policy compounds the problem. Labor migrants who do not see any chances to enter the country legally, use the asylum application process to enter South Africa. Since there is also high unemployment, poverty, and immense inequality within South African society, refugees and asylum-seekers often stand in direct competition with large parts of the South African population. Especially the socially disadvantaged classes feel that refugees’ presence provokes a struggle over scarce resources such as employment and living space. This is often held to be a reason for the xenophobic attitudes in large parts of the South African population (see the section on Xenophobia).

The Department of Home Affairs only recognized 15.5 percent of the processed asylum applications in 2011, much less than the average international recognition rate of 28 percent. Despite the weaknesses of South Africa’s asylum system named above, it is nonetheless a liberal asylum system, including all of the fundamental principles of refugee protection. Refugees’ rights include the right to choose freely where they live, to have a job, and to have access to health care services and basic education. Even if these rights are legally binding, in reality refugees often have problems claiming them. Due to widespread xenophobia in the population it is not only difficult for refugees to find an apartment or a job; public institutions also sometimes do not recognize refugees’ papers.


Xenophobia is defined here as a hostile attitude toward foreigners. In contrast to racism, this hate or fear is not mainly based on someone’s skin color or "race", but rather the country of origin. South Africa is seen as one of the most xenophobic countries in the world. Xenophobia does not only remain at the level of latent hostility toward foreigners, but rather explodes time after time in sometimes excessive violence.

Already during the colonial period, racism shaped South African society and found its climax in the Apartheid regime in the 20th century. Twenty years after the end of Apartheid’s institutionalized racism, one can still see traces of it, however in new forms. This xenophobia is not only a consequence of South Africa’s many years of isolation from the rest of the world, but also of the partially unconscious (ethno-national) exclusiveness as part of the "nation-building" process in democratic South Africa. This country was divided for so many decades and is trying to grow into one nation. A negative consequence of these efforts is the construction of the "national foreigner". In addition, Apartheid also created dramatic social and economic inequality in South African society as well as poverty among South Africa’s Black majority. For decades this regime repressed any efforts Black people made to move up economically and socially and also failed to invest in their education and job qualifications. In the South African population there is therefore an over-supply of unskilled labor. These workers migrated in high numbers to South Africa’s urban centers after Apartheid, resulting in a bitter struggle over jobs in those sectors which also hire many (irregular) migrants. However, xenophobia in South Africa is not limited to socially disadvantaged groups; it pervades all classes, independent of skin color.

Time and time again there are violent outbreaks for this reason. Since 2006 there have been numerous reports of native traders attacking their Somalian counterparts in the townships of larger cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. The worst case to date took place in May 2008, when 63 migrants were killed, hundreds injured, and thousands driven out of the country as a result of organized xenophobic attacks. After these massacres there was hope that politicians would rethink their policies; however, the many discussions on the causes for this violence hardly led to any concrete measures or programs dealing directly with the problem of xenophobia. Although the Immigration Act of 2002 took a clear position against xenophobia, some measures made it worse, such as "community policing", where residents were called upon to report suspicious people to the police.

South Africa is among those countries with the most negative views of foreigners. A survey from 2006 clearly shows the extent of this xenophobia. Eighty-four percent of the people interviewed believed that South Africa took in too many foreigners. Over 60 percent held that irregular migrants should not have any rights or protections, and half of the people interviewed spoke in favor of deporting even those migrants living in South Africa legally. Many South Africans assume that immigrants take away their living space, jobs, and wealth and threaten their safety, bringing crime, diseases, and cultural infiltration. These stereotypes are especially associated with African migrants from the neighboring states and East Africa.

There is no one or definitive explanation for the widespread xenophobia in South African society. The causes arise from the interplay between different factors. This makes it difficult to deal with the problem appropriately and end xenophobia. The first step, however, must be a different, more complex, and more positive presentation of migrants in the media and in politics, in order to counter xenophobic rhetoric and to contribute to a more open society.

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



  1. Crush (2000), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2013).

  2. Curtin (1994); Trimikliniotis et al. (2008); CIA World Factbook (2009); Chikanda (2010); Crush (2004).

  3. Crush (2008); Crush (2007); Waller (2006); Crush (2011).

  4. De la Hunt (1997); Crush/Mojapelo (1998).

  5. Crush/Mojapelo (1998); Hofmeyr et al. (2011).

  6. UNHCR (2012); UNHCR (2014b).

  7. CIA World Fact Book (2012); Maharaj (2004); UNHCR (2014b).

  8. IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis (2013); UNHCR (2014a).

  9. Harris (2002).

  10. Townships are defined here as the planned city districts for Black residents outside the city centre, as created by the Group Areas Act during Apartheid. Only the White population was allowed to live in the city centres.

  11. Neocosmos (2008).

  12. Crush (2011b).


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