How does xenophobia affect South Africa?

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

As a regional economic engine, South Africa attracts numerous migrant workers, especially from neighboring countries. For a long time, the country's migration policy was based on a racist selection of immigrants: whites were preferred over black migrants. This has not been the case since the end of apartheid. Nevertheless, large parts of the population are hostile to migrants.

Ore mining in a South African mine: A large number of foreign workers were and are employed, especially in the mining industry. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Immigrant population

The permanent immigration of black and white migrants to South Africa was regulated differently before 1995 and mainly allowed white immigration (see section on migration policy). The immigrant white population rose from around 18,000 in 1960 to over 160,000 in 1991.

With the end of apartheid, there was neither a feared mass emigration of the white population nor an uncontrollable influx of black migrants. In the decade from 1990 to 2000, fewer people initially immigrated to South Africa than before; however, the proportion of migrants of African descent rose steadily.

Table 1: Legal migration to South Africa 1990-2004
yearLegal immigrantsShare of African migrants (%)
Total (1990-2004)110.12127
Source: Crush (2008): South Africa - Policy in the Face of Xenophobia. (accessed: February 15, 2014); own representation.

As can be seen in Table 1, there was no increase in immigration until after 2000. Overall, the proportion of the foreign-born population in the total population rose from 3.8 percent in 1990 to 4.5 percent in 2013. [1]

It is not without reason that South Africa is also known as the "rainbow nation", because the country's population is very heterogeneous and unites people from different cultural backgrounds. According to the results of the 2011 census, almost 80 percent of the population describe themselves as African, around 9 percent each as white or colored and a further 2.5 percent as Asian.

Labor migration

In the early years of settlement by the Dutch and British, people were forcibly displaced from the rest of Africa, India, Indonesia and Madagascar to South Africa. These people were used as slaves in the South African labor market. The employment of migrant workers gained in importance, especially from the end of the 19th century. In 1880 only 1,400 migrants were initially employed in South Africa, only 19 years later there were already 97,000, 60 percent of them came from Mozambique.

The system of recruiting foreign workers was largely maintained after the end of apartheid. The importance of the mining sector and the number of employees initially fell between 1990 and 2000, while the proportion of foreign miners rose at the same time. This trend has been reversed since 2000. The Immigration Act of 2002 made it difficult to attract foreign workers to the benefit of South African citizens. At the same time, the need for labor increased due to rising gold prices, which is now increasingly being covered by the domestic labor market. Most of the foreign workers in the mining industry are still from Lesotho and Mozambique.

Table 2: Origin of workers in South African gold mines 1990-2006
yearSouth AfricaBotswanaLesothoMozambiqueSwazilandShare of foreigners in%total
Source: Crush (2008): South Africa - Policy in the Face of Xenophobia. (accessed: February 15, 2014); own representation.

Since many skilled workers are emigrating from South Africa, since the Immigration Act 2002 came into force, a quota system has been used to determine in which areas of the economy skilled workers from abroad are required. In the health sector in particular, there is a serious shortage of skilled workers in South Africa, which at present cannot be completely remedied even by foreign workers. However, South Africa's policy remains restrictive; outside of the strictly set quotas, migration to South Africa is difficult even for skilled workers.

Since 2000 there has been a massive increase in migration from Zimbabwe. In 2011, 15 percent of all temporary residence permits were issued to Zimbabweans. If you only look at temporary work permits, it is even 25 percent, as Table 3 shows. Overall, migrants from Zimbabwe received almost half of all temporary titles awarded to residents of southern Africa, followed by Lesotho with 8.5 percent and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with 8.2 percent.

Table 3: Temporary residence permits and work permits 2011
Origin of the ownerTotal number of temporary residence permits and work permitsof which work permitsProportion of origin in all work permits (in%)
All countries 106.17320.673100
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 representation.

Zimbabwe is down economically and politically. Unemployment is estimated at over 80 percent. The Immigration Act of 2002 made it easier to hire highly skilled migrants from Zimbabwe. Unlike most of the migrants from southern Africa, many Zimbabweans do not work in the South African mines because of their good education, but mainly in the health sector - with fatal consequences for the health system in Zimbabwe itself. While in Zimbabwe there were an average of 7,000 patients per doctor in 1995 , in 2004 there were almost 18,000 patients. A 2002 survey found that 68 percent of health professionals are considering emigrating from Zimbabwe. As early as 2000, 38.7 percent of the doctors who had emigrated lived in South Africa. [2]