Migration and Xenophobia in South Africa

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Xenophobia became a wildfire that started in Alexandra, South Africa in May 2008, and rapidly spread nationwide. In the following days and months, over 70 migrants were killed and tens of thousands were expelled from their homes and communities by South Africans. Foreign-owned businesses were destroyed, amounting to over R1.5 billion in damages. And while foreign-national businesses contribute to almost 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in South Africa, the South African government has made no move to assist in compensation or further assistance for businesses that were destroyed during the attacks.1 Moreover, the poor response by government and lack of migration policies has reinforced public perceptions: a South African Migration Project (SAMP) 2006 study2 revealed that South African nationals are “particularly intolerant of non-nationals, and especially African non-nationals”. Based upon recent data and reports, this article seeks to review the implications of South Africa’s response to migration, specifically in light of the 2008 xenophobic violence in South Africa, and the broader links to regional migration from its neighbouring countries.

The more recent history of South Africa’s xenophobia can be traced to the transition from apartheid to a democratic government. In 1994, the freedom felt within South Africa came with the ideology that the country must be protected from “outsiders”. In light of South Africa’s history, it is reasonable that the country needed to put its citizens first in line for transformation and change. However, the closed-door migration policies, sluggish development and increase in poverty and inequality have provided a breeding ground for xenophobia. Over the last decade, little tremors and eruptions of xenophobia have been apparent – with the greatest of those occurring in May 2008. Even now, the rumblings of xenophobia still remain. Without appropriately targeted migration policies to manage and work with the current migration flows in and out of South Africa, the recent nationwide attacks could be just the beginning of further targeted and more widespread violence against foreigners. South Africa provides an interesting study of how policy and perceptions go hand in hand, and thus the importance of addressing both simultaneously. A common belief in South Africa is that every job given to a foreign national is one less job for a South African; this is exacerbated by the formal unemployment rates, currently in the range of 30–40%. However, there is no empirical evidence to support this belief, and some categories of migrant work actually increase employment opportunities for South Africans.3 In sub-Saharan Africa, migration policies and responses – or rather lack thereof – reveal a negative stigma and encourage xenophobia. South African policy responses to migration have failed to grasp the bigger picture, focusing only on specific issues and overlooking important linkages between such related areas as the “brain drain” phenomenon, increasing inequality among citizens, unemployment and HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive overview of regional migration and its implications for South Africa is lacking, and much needed. It is difficult to find recent and reliable reports that analyse the situation at a regional level, and explore the complexities of the links between migration and development. Of the 56 countries in Africa, 19 either have no information on migration stock or only one census with data that can be used to analyse international migration.4 Undocumented migrants and short-term migration can easily be missed in data. However, South Africa does emerge as the country with the most data and information to provide a substantial case study on regional migration. Regional and Circular Migration South Africa is both a sending and receiving country of migrants: predominantly sending to the “north” [the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US) and Australia] and receiving migrants from its neighbours (primarily Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho). While the majority of research and discussion on migration focuses on the flow from south to north, recent research reveals that half of the migrants from developing countries (estimated at 74 million) live in developing countries, and 80% of these migrants are living in countries with a “contiguous border”.5 Add to this an increasing globalised economy and labour market, and the atmosphere surrounding migration becomes even more complicated and complex. The idea that it is just “the well-off” and highly skilled who are moving out of developing countries is no longer accurate. Migration is occurring between developing countries, leaving the least-developed countries most vulnerable to the “brain drain” phenomenon. Meanwhile, middle-income countries – like South Africa – are experiencing both emigration to the north and immigration from its neighbours. Because migration is increasingly becoming a livelihood strategy for many suffering from poverty in southern Africa, lack of proper regional planning and policies surrounding migration place strain on individual countries, as well as on the region. When one person physically moves out of a family, a neighbourhood, a region or a continent, they leave a gap. This loss can be measured by an increase of burden in the home and in the neighbourhood. On the whole, these single gaps and losses add up to large gaping holes of skills shortages, decreasing capacity in the economy, loss of investment in human capital, lower transfer of knowledge and less ability to develop a country and, specifically, sub-Saharan Africa. It is often these gaps that slow down already-lagging development. Economic policies are not able to address these gaps, and it is for this reason that comprehensive social policies within developing countries must address and provide for migration-related gaps and the filling of these gaps with available resources.

Legal southern African inter-regional migration has intensified over the last 20 years. However, the majority of migrants remain circular migrants – never permanently settling in the receiving country. Countries like South Africa and Botswana are seen as the top choice for migration, in terms of economic opportunities. But migrants remain connected to their home countries due to family, education, access to land, and national culture. The SAMP research reveals that the majority of regional migrants do not stay permanently in South Africa. Similar studies show that cross-border migrants to South Africa find better access to land, housing and services in their own countries, and that they travel mainly for economic opportunities. Migration is a livelihood strategy – a way to incur capital and income. For migrants, it is more beneficial to maintain two homes.

The South African Development Community (SADC), a regional alliance, upholds a vision “of a common future… that will ensure economic well-being, improvement of the standards of living and quality of life, freedom and social justice and peace and security for the peoples of Southern Africa”.6 Yet, while SADC is committed to greater regional integration in all economic spheres, it has been unable to promote the freedom of movement of people in the region progressively. Furthermore, the alliance has struggled to coordinate a regional response to internal and external refugee movements, although the idea of “regional burdensharing” has been embraced.7

Circular regional migration is a significant factor to consider as responses and tools to manage migration are developed. If migrants are moving to South Africa to seek out a better life, yet contribute to the economy and remain connected to their home country, how can appropriate policies allow the sending country, the receiving country and the migrant to all benefit reciprocally? South Africa and the SADC region have struggled to determine an approach that would benefit all territories.

Ironically, in the midst of the “brain drain” dialogue, South Africa is host to a wealth of resources, in the form of skilled migrants already within the country’s borders. Unfortunately, even with the need for skilled professionals in South Africa, these men and women are often unable to find work that matches their skills. For instance, legal migrants who are skilled in areas of plumbing, electronics and even engineering have certifications that are not recognised within the country. Many of these foreigners must resort to finding less-skilled jobs, and it is often at this level that South Africans feel that their jobs are being on the flow of migrants from these three countries into South Africa. The survey revealed that 42% of persons surveyed in the three countries had visited South Africa at least once in their lives. Because tracking undocumented migrants is virtually impossible, the estimated migrant stock numbers have ranged from 500 000 to 1 million (estimate by Statistics South Africa) to 4 to 8 million (South African government estimate). One study found that South Africans “believe”’ that 25% of its population is foreign; however, the actual figure is more likely to be 3-5%.10 South African policy discourse tends to remain around “illegal aliens”. However, a number of studies have found that a majority of people enter South Africa legally, but overstay their visas.

Immigration Policy in South Africa

Following South Africa’s democratic transition, the Refugee Act took four years to draft and, after eight years of negotiations, the Immigration Act (“the Act”) was created. However, the Act was only implemented in 2005. Professor Jonathan Crush considers three reasons why it took South Africa so long to replace the apartheid regime’s Aliens Control Act: after apartheid’s “taken”. In addition, issues such as remittances, brain drain and gain, HIV/AIDS and gender create a complicated environment, which needs specific policies that address the protection and promotion of migrants.

South Africa’s Policy Response to Migration

South Africa is considered a major foreign migrant receiving country in the region, hosting over five million “visitors” per year. According to the 2001 Census, 1 025 072 people living in South Africa were foreign-born, and more than half were from the SADC region.8 The SADC region, affected by the hardships of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment, has experienced an inward flow of undocumented migrants to South Africa, increased trafficking in people, weapons and drugs, and the exodus of skilled professionals. Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are the largest source countries of documented migration into South Africa, as well as seemingly the largest sources of undocumented migrants.9 The 2000 migration surveys conducted by the Centre for Migration Studies focused isolation, the idea of migration created panic in nationals and immigration was seen as “undesirable”; migration was not considered an opportunity for development but rather an issue of control and exclusion; and lastly, internal politics between the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party significantly delayed any progress.11

While the Act attempts to be more migrant-friendly, it is considered extremely limited and ambiguous. It does very little to support the poor, and the emphasis is almost exclusively focused on attracting highly skilled migrants. The Act suggests that it is committed to “rooting out xenophobia” in society, but it gives no practical steps on how this will be achieved. In fact, the tougher enforcement and “community policing” of undocumented workers has actually increased xenophobia at the community level. Furthermore, the Act has driven labour migration further underground, leading to unclear statistics especially on undocumented foreigners.

For several years, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA) refused to ratify the SADC draft Protocol on Facilitation of Movement of People. More recently, however, South Africa has taken a more open approach. However, the Protocol still remains in draft form. It calls for a freer movement of people from within the SADC region, and its specific objectives are threefold: to allow a citizen of a member country to enter a fellow member country without a visa lawfully for ninety days; permanent and temporary residence for citizens in other countries; as well as the ability to work in another member country. While the first has seen greater acceptance throughout SADC, the latter two objectives are more difficult to implement regionally, and remain debated.

Responding to Refugees

The South African government records that nearly 160 000 refugee claims from 1994 to 2004 have been made – 74% from African countries. In 2007 alone, over 45 000 new applications for asylum were made to the South African DHA. Refugees from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola have high rates of acceptance; the majority of others are turned down. In February 2008, there was a backlog of over 89 000 asylum applications from 2006 to 2007.12 The Refugee Act places responsibility upon the South African government to provide full protection and provision of rights set out in the Constitution – this includes access to social security and assistance. In addition, as of 12 January 1996, South Africa is a signatory of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, obliging the state to provide equal treatment to refugees as they would nationals.

More recently, with the continued economic and political turmoil in Zimbabwe, millions of Zimbabweans have fled the country or rely heavily upon a migrant worker for remittances. Reliable data is unavailable within Zimbabwe, and the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa is unknown; estimations range from 500 000 to 3 million Zimbabwean refugees. These refugees remain incredibly vulnerable, since the majority have not entered the country legally, but thousands are fleeing to find safety as well as income for survival. As one of the main targeted groups during the May 2008 xenophobic attack, Zimbabweans continue to be the target of mass police round-ups and deportations.

Due to the lack of structures and systems for refugees, undocumented migrants are constantly at risk of being deported to their home countries. Since 1994, over 1.7 million undocumented migrants have been deported to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In 2006 alone, 260 000 migrants were deported from South Africa.13 The Consortium of Refugees and Migrants in South Africa’s (CoRMSA) 2008 migration report suggests that, in 2007, the number increased to more than 300 000.14 Many asylum-seekers are unable even to reach a DHA office to register and apply for asylum before they are deported to their home country. With the recent increase in the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and the May 2008 xenophobic attacks, deportation of undocumented migrants has skyrocketed.

Social Protection for Non-citizens

In 2002, South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD) commissioned a Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security, or the “Taylor Committee”. The Committee’s report15 strongly recommended a comprehensive social protection system. It emphasised that the South African Constitution in Section 27 (1) (c) states that “everyone” has a right to social security. However, social assistance in South Africa continues to exclude non-citizens. The report suggested that “there will probably be constitutional pressure to ensure all people (including illegal immigrants) have access to certain basic services (such as emergency healthcare), and full access to certain categories such as refugees”.

In 2003 and 2004, two different cases were brought before the Constitutional Court by Mozambican permanent residents of South Africa, to challenge their eligibility to receive social assistance. The first case ruled that children born in South Africa, but of non-citizen parents, should not be denied the child-support grant. The other case, however, ruled that it was reasonable to discriminate against non-citizens with regards to the old-age pension, since “resources were constrained and citizens should be prioritised”. The ruling was overturned in 2004, stating that non-citizens who were legally in the country and given permanent residence status should not fall outside the provisioning of old-age pensions.16 These cases are significant in highlighting the rights of non-citizens in South Africa, but they have not necessarily encouraged further protection of non-citizens.

The CoRMSA 2008 migration report suggests that the implementation of rights and services of migrants have lagged, and migrants are extremely likely to be excluded from basic social services. In addition to threats of violence, xenophobia keeps migrants (even legal migrants) from vital services to which they may be entitled, including health and education. The report highlighted that approximately 35% of migrant school-age children are not enrolled in school, because they are unable to pay the school fees and related costs – and some are just explicitly denied access to the school by a school administrator. In addition, many migrants report being refused access to treatment at public clinics and hospitals, as well as being refused antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS because they do not carry a South African identification card. Misunderstandings persist at the service provider level as to the rights of migrants – this is a primary cause of many migrants being turned away from basic and emergency healthcare services. The denial of services is a non- or miscommunication issue from the top down, as government has not been active in educating other government service providers about the rights of migrants within South Africa.


Triggered by the continued flaws in South Africa’s Immigration Act, as well as the 2008 xenophobic attacks, the DHA has initiated a review of the current Immigration Act. A new approach is anticipated in 2009. Even a basic review of the migration situation in the SADC region – and South Africa specifically – clearly reveals that not enough resources or attention has been focused on regional migration. Can South Africa become the leading country for regional integration and policies on migration? If South Africa is to fulfil its constitutional mandate, as well as international and regional agreements to pursue migration assistance through pro-poor policies, it must make greater efforts to lead the region in providing policies for free movement and the protection of people to encourage livelihoods and discourage further xenophobic reactions. Bilateral and regional agreements have the potential to manage migration between neighbouring countries, and provide protection for the movement of people between them. National and regional social policies can only truly be effective when they begin to address emigration as well as areas such as remittances, HIV/AIDS, entry into labour markets and social protection services. Policies that focus on the protection of migrants provide a rights-based approach (upon which South Africa’s Constitution is founded) and open doors to further discussion of xenophobia within the region. They also have the capacity to create an environment that will peacefully enhance the economic potential of thousands of migrants who are already within South Africa’s borders. Creative policies and dialogue that recognise and accept migration as a continued phenomenon are needed within southern Africa. The South African government must remain relevant to the changing form of migration and realise that, in this globalised economy, migration has become a means for both a country and an individual to overcome poverty. The response from leaders and departments – more specifically, the Presidency and leading party, DSD and DHA – have the influence to either encourage or discourage xenophobia. Government has the mandate and the ability to provide safety and protection for those within its borders, even for non-citizens.

Christy McConnell is a Partner at Reform Development Consulting, a South African-based research firm that works throughout Africa on social transformation. She recently worked at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva, Switzerland, in the Social Policy and Development Programme.



1 (2008) ‘Now Dust has Settled Down, Victims of Xenophobia Demand Compensation’, CAJ News, 14 September 2008, Available at: Accessed on: 25 November 2008.

2 Black, Richard; Crush, Jonathan; Peberdy, Sally; Ammassari, Savina; McLean Hilker, Lyndsay; Mouillesseaux, Shannon; Pooley, Claire and Rajkotia, Radha (2006) Migration and Development in Africa: An Overview. African Migration and Development Series No.1. South African Migration Project, Cape Town: IDASA, pp. 91-105.

3 Black, Richard et al (2006) op. cit., p. 117.

4 Zlotnik, Hania (2004) ‘International Migration in Africa: an Analysis Based on Estimates of the Migrant Stock’, Migration Information Source, Available at: Accessed on: 27 October 2008.

5 Ratha, Dilip and Shaw, William (2007) ‘South-south Migration and Remittances’. World Bank Working Paper No. 102. Washington, DC: World Bank, p. 2.

6 Southern African Development Community (2008) Available at: Accessed on: 26 October 2008.

7 Black, Richard et al (2006) op. cit., pp. 88, 100.

8 Black, Richard et al (2006) op. cit., p. 115.

9 McDonald, David; Zinyama, Lovemore; Gay, John; De Vletter, Fion and Mattes, Robert (2000) ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Migration from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to South Africa’. International Migration Review, 34 (3), p. 817.

10 Black, Richard et al (2006) op. cit., p. 116.

11 Crush, Jonathan (2008) ‘South Africa: Policy in the Face of Xenophobia’, Migration Information Source, Available at: Accessed on: 27 October 2008, p. 2.

12 Crush, Jonathan (2008), op. cit., pp. 6-7.

13 Crush, Jonathan (2008), op. cit., p. 2.

14 Consortium of Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) (2008) ‘Protecting Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in South Africa’, Available at: Accessed on: 27 November 2008, pp. 8-41.

15 ‘Reports of the Taylor Committee into a Social Security System for South Africa’, Taylor Committee, No. 4 (2002) Committee Report No. 3: Conceptual framework, Department of Social Development, South Africa, Available at: Accessed on: 25 November 2008.

16 Seekings, Jeremy (2007) ‘Poverty and Inequality After Apartheid’, paper prepared for the second After Apartheid Conference, Yale University, 27-28 April 2007, p. 21.

Originally Published in ACCORD’s Conflict Trends 2009/1. 

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