LIVES AND TIMES OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS & IMMIGRANTS IN
POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA
McDonald, Lephophotho Mashike, and Celia Golden
Southern African Migration Project
Migration Policy Series No. 13
PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.
Since 1996, the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) has
conducted a series of cross-national surveys of attitudes towards
migration and immigration in the region. The aim of the surveys
is to provide policy-makers, NGOs and researchers with
up-to-date, comprehensive and rigorous information on people's
experiences with, and attitudes towards, cross-border migration
in the Southern African region.
The first major survey, the Five Nation Survey, focused on the
attitudes towards migration of residents of countries bordering
South Africa (Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana and
Zimbabwe). The second examined South African attitudes towards
immigrants and immigration. The third complementary survey
studies the attitudes and experiences of African migrants living
in South Africa at the time of the survey. This publication
reports the results of the third survey and, for a fuller
picture, should be read in conjunction with the SAMP reports on
the first two surveys.
The survey of 501 migrants from other African countries living
in South Africa was conducted in mid-1998. The research was
undertaken in three provinces -- Gauteng, Western Cape and
KwaZulu-Natal. The difficulties of identifying and interviewing
migrants in South Africa are well-known to researchers. As a
result, this survey certainly does not claim to be statistically
representative of the entire migrant population in the country.
Indeed, this would be impossible given the unknown numbers of
undocumented migrants and their relative importance compared to
legal migrants. However, this is still the largest survey
undertaken by anyone to date of migrants from other African
The survey permits the construction of the following general
profile of the African migrant population within South Africa:
- Most migrants from SADC countries have visited South
Africa before this current visit and are at least the
third generation of their family to have done so.
Migrants from other parts of Africa are generally
visiting South Africa for the first time.
- Few migrants have the desire to settle permanently in
- Migrants are motivated to come to South Africa largely,
but not entirely, by economic opportunities.
- Migrants are motivated, educated, skilled and
- Although migrants find work easily, they do not earn high
- Migrants have substantial responsibilities in their home
country, which in most instances includes the maintenance
of a house and family.
- Although economic opportunities and certain social
services are deemed to be better in South Africa than in
the home country, most migrants would prefer to raise a
family in their home country and find the overall quality
of life to be better at home.
- The vast majority of migrants are legal and in spite of
significant difficulties obtaining official
documentation, most have entered South Africa through
designated customs points, using formal modes of
transport, and have pre-arranged accommodation.
- There is growing evidence to suggest that far from being
the perpetrators of crime, migrants are
disproportionately the victims of crime and xenophobia,
made worse be inadequate redress in the law or lack of
protection by the police.
- Migrants feel strongly that they should be offered the
same social and economic rights as South African citizens
(e.g. opportunities for a job, same access to medical
services), but should not necessarily be allowed to vote
in South African elections.
- Migrants take borders seriously and support immigration
policy if it is fair and applied humanely.
- Most migrants feel that South Africa has a moral
obligation to the African countries that took up
positions against apartheid, and should therefore embrace
and welcome foreign migrants.
These results correspond with the findings of the survey
conducted in Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Namibia in 1997,
and reinforce the central argument of this paper. Cross-border
migration from other parts of Africa into South Africa is
predominantly legal, short-term, and highly formalized. Popular
perceptions of poor, uneducated criminals doing whatever it takes
to sneak into South Africa and stay in the country forever are
simply not born out in the research. These popular perceptions
may in fact contribute to a hardening of immigration sentiment
and growing xenophobia in South Africa. The ironic result is that
an eminently manageable process becomes increasingly clandestine
and difficult to control.
The policy implications of the research are as follows:
- Migration would appear to be a highly regularized and
legalized process conducted by responsible people, and it
is important that South Africa build on this process
rather than forcing migrants and migration into more
clandestine modes of operation.
- New immigration legislation should address human rights
abuses and make immigration policy more consistent with
the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution.
- Immigration and security authorities should address human
rights abuses at a more practical level with their staff
in terms of education and discipline.
- Immigration policy-makers and practitioners should
recognize the importance of cross-border movement for
socio-economic stability in the region (and beyond) as
well as the need to address the more micro-economic
impacts that migration policy can have on household
opportunities and welfare outside the country.
- The bulk of the cross-border traffic in South Africa
would appear to be short term and it is important that
immigration policy be cognizant of the very different
legislative and practical differences between long-term
or permanent immigration and short-term, purpose-driven
- Basotho stand out as distinct from other African
nationals in terms of their experiences with, and
attitudes towards, migration to South Africa. These
results bring into further focus the need to explore the
possibility of some kind of special immigration compact
between South Africa and Lesotho.
- Migration into South Africa is now a truly pan-African
phenomenon and will become increasingly so. It is
important that policy-makers are sensitive to the
regional differences in migration into the country, and
that they acknowledge the new role that South Africa has
begun to play with respect to the movement of people on
the continent as a whole.
- Women are an increasingly important part of the migration
nexus, and their experiences and aspirations with
cross-border migration are different in many respects
from those of men. Policy-makers must pay attention to
these gender dynamics when it comes to legislating and
managing immigration policy.
- Although the majority of migrants interviewed do not
intend to stay in South Africa permanently, they do plan
to stay for several months or several years and they
expect to have access to basic social and economic
services. Access to housing, education, health care and
other social and welfare services needs to be addressed
as part of a larger basket of immigration rights and
responsibilities. It is essential that these decisions be
based on reliable, empirical evidence about what is
happening on the ground, as well as by reference to
international policy experiences and treaty obligations.