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South Africa Reckons with Its Status as a Top Immigration Destination, Apartheid History, and Economic Challenges

South Africa Reckons with Its Status as a Top Immigration Destination, Apartheid History, and Economic Challenges

Two boys pose in an informal settlement east of Johannesburg largely populated by immigrants.

Two boys pose in an informal settlement east of Johannesburg largely populated by immigrants. (Photo: John Hogg/World Bank)

Due to its middle-income status, stable democratic institutions, and comparatively industrialized economy, South Africa hosts the largest number of immigrants on the African continent. According to official estimates, the country is home to about 2.9 million immigrants, which would account for slightly less than 5 percent of the overall population of 60 million people. However, this number is thought to be an underestimate because of the presence of large numbers of unauthorized migrants, particularly from neighboring countries.

Immigration has tended to increase over recent decades, particularly since the arrival of democracy and end of apartheid in 1994. The government’s statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, has estimated that a net 853,000 people migrated to the country over the 2016-21 period, a slight reduction from the net immigration of 916,300 over the 2011-16 period but a dramatic increase from the 491,700 in the 2001-06 period. Between 2016 and 2021, net immigration was highest among the African (894,400) and Asian (49,900) populations, but offset by a net emigration of nearly 91,000 White residents. Most immigrants live in Gauteng, the country’s richest province, which comprises the commercial capital of Johannesburg, the executive capital Pretoria/Tshwane, and the manufacturing hub of Ekurhuleni.

Overall, three-quarters of South Africa’s immigrants are from elsewhere on the African continent, according to the country’s 2011 census, which is its most recent. Of these Africans, 68 percent originated from elsewhere within the 16-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Zimbabwe was the largest origin country, accounting for 24 percent of all immigrants, according to 2020 United Nations data. South Africa also attracts a sizable number of immigrants from Europe and North America.

Table 1. Immigrants in South Africa, 2020

Note: * indicates countries that are Member States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Source: United Nations Population Division, “International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin,” 2020, available online.

South Africa also experiences a steady outflow of its citizens, particularly from the White population, who move to countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States (see Table 2). The emigration of White South Africans gained momentum after the end of apartheid as many became disillusioned with the new majority Black government and has continued over the nearly three decades since. White residents accounted for 11 percent of South Africa’s population in 1996, 9 percent in 2011, and just 8 percent as of mid-2021. This continuing decline has been attributed to the emigration of White residents and lower fertility rates among White communities.

Table 2. Emigrants from South Africa, 2020

Source: United Nations Population Division, “International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin,” 2020.

Still, White South Africans have not been the only ones to leave the country. There has also been anecdotal evidence suggesting a steady outflow of Black professionals, especially in the medical and engineering fields, who leave to pursue work-related opportunities. Increasingly, these emigrants have been joined by Black professionals from other African countries who had previously migrated to South Africa but have since left due to factors such as shrinking economic opportunities and growing xenophobic sentiment, which has at times translated into violent attacks on Black foreigners. In recent years, this emigration has raised concerns about a brain drain from the country.

This article examines South Africa’s immigration and emigration trends, focusing on the legacy of apartheid and the country’s struggles to accommodate immigrants amid its persistent and serious economic challenges, as well as steady but rising brain drain. Although the country remains a magnet for regional migration—both economic and humanitarian—it has been unable to resolve these continuing pressures and has flirted with efforts to limit immigration, particularly of low-skilled workers from other SADC Member States.

A Long History of Immigration and Leadership in the SADC

South Africa’s history of immigration dates back to the Bantu migration, which predated the arrival of White settlers in 1652. However, the turning point commonly identified by scholars was a pair of incidents in the 19th century: the late-1860s discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and the approximately 1886 striking of gold in the Witwatersrand basin, around Johannesburg. These discoveries triggered massive movements into South Africa, particularly the emerging city of Johannesburg, and a mix of southern Africans as well as fortune hunters from Australia, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere were among the new immigrants.

In subsequent years, development of the mining economy created a demand for labor that could not be satisfied by local recruitment initiatives and required the country to attract workers from beyond its borders, particularly from nearby southern African states. In effect, the growth of this mining sector created regional migration corridors between South Africa and neighbors such as Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique, which have only grown more advanced in the century since. The South African government established bilateral agreements related to contracted labor migration for the mines as well as farms and other growing sectors. Through these types of systems, South Africa grew to become a major migrant destination country in the southern African region, which since 1992 has been formalized as the SADC. Thus, the growth of the migrant labor system in relation to South Africa’s gold and diamond mines is crucial context for understanding the regional and circular migration patterns that continue today.

There is an important caveat to these movements that relates to the country’s history of apartheid. While most arriving migrants came from elsewhere on the continent to work in mining and other sectors, they historically did not have the right to settle permanently. Access to permanent status in South Africa was the preserve of White immigrants, primarily from Europe, North America, and later from newly independent African countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Black African immigrants were allowed to stay only so long as they rendered their labor and maintained valid contracts; once these contracts were completed, they were repatriated to their countries of origin.

This practice of different rules for different immigrants based on their race was enshrined into law with the formal creation of apartheid in 1948 and endured until the advent of democracy in 1994. Before 1994, all Africans—including native-born Black South Africans—did not have the right to fully belong to South Africa. Only White people were entitled to South African citizenship. Black South Africans were relegated to a second tier of citizenship and homelands that were governed separately, through homeland governments. Native-born Black South Africans were in many cases considered citizens of their respective homelands rather than the country of South Africa and were required to present passes to travel from the homelands to other parts of the country.

Post-Apartheid: End to Racial Restrictions but No Clean Break in Policy 

Since South Africa attained democracy in 1994, the nature and magnitude of its migratory flows have changed significantly. The new government enabled many migrants to come to the country from other corners of Africa as well as Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent. The new government had to grapple with managing these changed patterns of migration. Whereas historically immigration had been dominated by low-skilled laborers coming to work in the mines and other sectors, the post-1994 migration regime has allowed for a much more diverse set of immigrants and travellers. The end of apartheid also ushered in closer economic ties between South Africa and its continental neighbors. As a result, the proportion of arrivals from elsewhere in Africa rose.

Over the following years, the profile of immigrants to South Africa has included low-skilled migrants from elsewhere in the region (many of whom have been unauthorized), skilled African professionals, and refugees and asylum seekers. Policies have in general not kept up with the changing nature of these flows.

Post-Apartheid Immigration Policies and Legislation

The Aliens Control Act of 1991 was one of the final apartheid-era laws and was at odds with the new democratic dispensation that came into place when apartheid ended. The law handed down heavy penalties for illegal immigration and for supporting migrants who arrived illegally; it bestowed upon immigration authorities new powers to carry out searches and arrests. Yet despite its base in apartheid, the Aliens Control Act remained in place for several years after the arrival of democracy and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of arrests and deportations annually. Bilateral labor supply agreements with South Africa’s neighbors Botswana, Eswatini (then known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique also remained in place. Together, this framework formed what was called the “two gates” or “two-door” policy for immigration: a clearly defined temporary pathway for Black migrant workers (and the threat of serious legal repercussions for trying to side-step this pathway), and a more liberal one for White immigrants looking to stay permanently.

The Aliens Control Act was replaced by the Immigration Act of 2002. This law maintained a posture of preventing irregular migration and focused on promoting skilled labor migration. Subsequently amended in 2007 and 2011 to take into account the changed nature of the South African landscape, the law nonetheless still possesses elements of the apartheid era’s focus on granting access to specific categories of immigrants and closing it off to others. Notably, the Immigration Act seemed to ignore most low-skilled workers from elsewhere in the SADC region, who have a very slim chance of legally immigrating to South Africa. This has created massive problems of irregular migrants; some would-be economic migrants also have taken to the country’s asylum system as a means to gain documentation.

Hardening Approaches to Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Unauthorized Migrants

The Refugees Act of 1998 allows asylum seekers to move freely, work, and study in the country during the lengthy adjudication process. However, partly in response to concerns that the asylum system was being used by people without legitimate fear of persecution in order to secure work status, subsequent amendments to the law in 2008, 2011, and 2017 sought to curtail these rights. Legislative measures have also attempted to make South Africa less desirable for asylum seekers in order to lessen the demand on asylum processing. Critics have repeatedly complained that the asylum system is rife with bureaucratic inefficiency, with years-long backlogs and lengthy appeals. Rejection rates reached as high as 96 percent of all asylum cases in 2019. In early 2020, additional hurdles for asylum seekers and refugees were implemented, restricting them from participating in politics in their country of origin, seemingly in response to the large number of foreign exiled political dissidents who have taken up residence in South Africa. Today, the asylum process can be long and arduous. Many asylum seekers and other migrants face considerable risks including crime, harassment, and xenophobic attacks.

Still, the population of forced migrants in South Africa is sizeable, and accounts for approximately 9 percent of the total recognized immigrant population. As of 2020, the country hosted 255,200 forcibly displaced persons, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom 76,800 were recognized refugees and 173,500 were asylum seekers. Perhaps surprisingly, not all of these humanitarian migrants were from southern Africa—or even the African continent at all. The major source countries for refugees and asylum seekers in 2020 were Ethiopia (the origin for 25 percent), Democratic Republic of the Congo (23 percent), Somalia (11 percent), Bangladesh (10 percent), and Zimbabwe (6 percent) (see Table 3).

Table 3. Asylum Seekers and Refugees in South Africa, 2020

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); “Refugee Data Finder,” accessed November 11, 2021, available online.

Men and boys comprise 75 percent of South Africa’s total population of forced migrants. This is largely a result of the difficulty journeys that these migrants undertake, particularly those from countries outside southern Africa, which may involve use of human smugglers and encounters with hostile authorities that pose particular challenges for women.

Unauthorized Migrants

The South African government, similar to others, has placed a growing focus on security and has increasingly viewed irregular migrants as threats to its national security. The government’s 2017 White Paper on International Migration for South Africa, for instance, raised concern about irregular immigration, saying it “leads to unacceptable levels of corruption, human-rights abuse, and national security risks.” It goes further to critique the refugee regime, arguing the country is vulnerable to security risks as a result of over-generous humanitarian protection rights and provisions. Prominent narratives have also persisted in public discourse, including the notion that the asylum system has been abused by migrants who are actually coming to seek work, as well as discourses that conflate asylum seekers with unauthorized immigrants. The 2017 government report showed particular concern about irregular migration of low-skilled or unskilled laborers from elsewhere in the SADC region, which it stated threatened the country’s economic stability and national sovereignty.

Growing out of these sentiments, the government has in recent years put in place new measures to curtail and monitor migrants’ movements, such as the Border Management Authority Bill of 2020, which aims to consolidate and centralize border control functions. The government has also rearranged some of its bureaucracy to prioritize securitization, by moving the Department of Home Affairs from the government’s Governance and Administrative Cluster to the Justice, Crime Prevention, and Security Cluster, placing it alongside the departments for Police, Defense, State Security, and others focused on criminal and security issues.

New Possibilities in Ad Hoc Grants of Status?

The Documentation of Zimbabweans Project represents a prominent exception to the restrictive immigration regime, regularizing the status of hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants. The project was introduced in 2010 to ease pressure on the asylum system and respond to the large numbers of unauthorized migrants from Zimbabwe who were living in the country. The idea was to regularize the status of these Zimbabweans and give them the right to work, study, and run businesses, albeit temporarily. The program was extended in 2014 and 2017; approximately 180,000 Zimbabweans held these permits as of 2021. As of this writing, it was unclear whether the regularization program would again be extended in 2021, when beneficiaries’ current four-year permits expire. The government extended the program to include approximately 90,000 nationals of Lesotho (in 2015) and an estimated 5,000 from Angola (in 2017). In all instances, the government waived the usual requirements for temporary residence permits and allowed irregular migrants to apply based on their residence in South Africa, evidence of work or study, and a clean criminal record.

The ad hoc nature of these special permits is not new. South Africa has implemented similar programs in the past, such as in 1995 when it awarded permanent residence to approximately 52,000 former mine workers who had been in the country for at least a decade. In 1996, it offered permanent residence to approximately 180,000 citizens from elsewhere in the SADC who had been residing in South Africa for at least five years and were either working in or had a family connection to the country. It later also announced a program for individuals fleeing Mozambique.

However, the more recent grants of status for people from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Angola, which have been termed amnesties, only grant recipients temporary status, with no option of permanent residence regardless of how long beneficiaries have lived in South Africa. Given that the permits were offered as one-off events, migrants who missed the original window for applying have not been eligible to apply during the subsequent renewals, leaving them outside a program that was ostensibly meant to protect them.

Still, supporters say these efforts nonetheless represent a welcome development in terms of managing irregular migration from the region. Given the long history of immigration to South Africa and the established corridors from regional countries, the government has had difficulties attempting to actively exclude regional migrants and shrink the pathways to regular, legal immigration. These types of ad hoc programs represent an attempt to regularize tens of thousands of migrants who have taken up jobs, formed families, and otherwise built their lives in South Africa over several years.

The Specter of Xenophobia

Despite the country’s long history of immigration and intermittent efforts at legalization, many elements of South African society have expressed xenophobic sentiments towards immigrants, including legally present workers and asylum seekers. Since apartheid, South Africa has struggled with high levels of economic and social inequality. This stratification continues to take on a racialized dimension, with Black residents comprising the majority of those who live below the poverty line. Unemployment is also very high, with official figures of 34 percent as of the second quarter of 2021; among the youth (ages 15 to 24) unemployment was over 64 percent. These disparities have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions, which resulted in the loss of up to 3 million jobs, according to a team of researchers.

Anxieties towards the foreign born in South Africa have often taken the form of violence, as the xenophobia monitoring platform Xenowatch has documented. The worst of this violence, which has often extended to native-born South Africans, occurred in May 2008, when 62 people were killed—including 21 South Africans—and more than 100,000 internally displaced in a series of incidents in which mobs attacked immigrant communities and looted foreign-owned businesses. Other episodes have also been notable, such as the September 2019 violence that resulted in the burning of foreign-owned shops in Johannesburg’s Central Business District and Jeppestown neighborhoods. There have also been incidents in which foreign-born truck drivers have faced violent attacks on the 580-kilometer N3 highway between Johannesburg and the port city of Durban. The violence against foreign nationals is selective, targeted at Black Africans, in a development that some authors have referred to as Afro-phobia.

Academics and analysts have debated the causes of xenophobic violence, with some arguing that it is due to the poor performance of the economy and the country’s very high levels of unemployment. On their own, these factors may not prompt attacks on foreign nationals, but researchers have identified that political actors sometimes mobilize communities on the basis of a nationalist agenda and portray immigrants as the cause of unemployment and other problems, in order to solidify their political support. This type of rhetoric has at times been apparent during elections, such as during the November 2021 local government elections in which political parties that called for much tougher immigration policies did very well in the metro areas of Johannesburg and Tshwane, partly as result of demands for stronger borders.

Future Issues

South Africa increasingly faces a difficult future. Despite its comparatively industrialized economy, the country does not create enough jobs to meet the demands of the large numbers of unemployed residents, both native and foreign born. The pandemic amplified the existing inequalities in the country, further exacerbating a situation that has remained fragile since apartheid.

Partly as result of these economic challenges, South Africa is undergoing a changing political environment in which the African National Congress (ANC), which has been in power since the advent of democracy, is losing support. The 2021 local elections were the first since 1994 in which the ANC won fewer than half of the votes nationally. Among the parties that have risen in response are some that have advocated for stronger securitization of South Africa’s borders and a more selective immigration system, often using the language of economic anxiety.

Finally, there is the lack of a strong regional framework to coordinate labor migration in the SADC region. Although the region has made efforts to progressively eliminate barriers to movement across its 16 countries, they have been mostly unfinished. While SADC Member States have enacted a series of bilateral agreements that allow for visa-free travel in many cases, there has not been robust support for a forward-thinking regional migration plan to meet the challenges of tomorrow. As the region’s major destination country, South Africa would surely benefit tremendously from such a formal system to regulate the arrival of foreign workers—as would migrants’ countries of origin, their communities there, and the migrants themselves.


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