Our immigration tinderbox

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the temptation to scapegoat foreigners in the run up to the 2024 elections


Pick a number, any number

If not in next year’s election, certainly the following one, the scale of illegal immigration — or, if you prefer to put it more delicately, of undocumented migration — is likely to be a major and potentially explosive issue.

Part of the emotion around the issue is simply ugly xenophobia directed against a community that, according to research and contrary to popular opinion, is a nett contributor to economic growth. Another part of it, however, is an entirely understandable reaction from poor South Africans who are having to compete for access to desperately scarce resources against sharp-elbowed aliens. And then there’s also the undeniable role — played up in the media by the police — of foreign gangsters in organised crime like illegal mining, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, drugs, and cash-in-transit heists.

But the most fundamental reason for emotion trumping reason regarding migrants is ignorance. No one has an accurate handle on the extent of the problem.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Consequently, nothing can be rationally addressed — not Home Affairs regulations, not social housing needs, not planning for the National Health Insurance. To do so there has to be a credibly calculated and broadly accepted figure for the number of migrants, both documented and unregistered, there are in the country. 

At the upper end is the estimate of 15 million, which would equate to one in four of the population. This figure appears to have been just plucked out of the ether but has much traction in popular discussions and has often been bandied about by anti-migration politicians like ActionSA's Herman Mashaba.

 At the lower end is that of Stats SA, released last month, of 2.4 million foreigners, both legal and illegal. That’s only 200,000 up from the 2011 census figure. It's substantially down from the 2020 estimates of Stats SA and the United Nations of 3.9 million and 4.2 million respectively. 

As I pointed out in a recent column, the new “official” figure also contradicts the trend of all three previous censuses, which showed an accelerating trend of migration. Starting from a census base figure of 835,000 in 1996, the migrant population increased by 23% in the five years to 2001. In the next 10 years, to the 2011 census, it more than doubled from just over a million to 2.2 million.

Yet the Census 2022 figure implies that post-2011 this acceleration suddenly hit an invisible wall. The rate of increase supposedly dropped to only 9% — the addition over a decade of a mere 200,000 people to a total of 2.4 million — during a period characterised by our borders becoming more porous and political, economic and social conditions deteriorating markedly in much of the continent.

No demographer who I’ve spoken to in the past fortnight has much faith in the 2.4 million figure, describing it variously as “implausible”, “a thumbsuck” and “unlikely”. They cite the complications caused by the massive 30% undercount in the census and hence having to upscale figures from questionable baseline data. (One academic doubted, too, the total population estimate of 62 million, saying that it was more likely to be around 60 million.)

On its part, Stats SA is refreshingly frank about the limitations and contradictions in its foreign migration data. Responding to my questions, Deputy Director General Yandiswa Mpetsheni points out that the earlier, higher, figures will not be discarded but remain part of Stats SA’s ongoing data evaluation process in preparing the Mid-Year Population Estimate, scheduled for release in July next year. There is also “continuous engagement” with Home Affairs to access its data on foreign-born persons.

“In essence, we share your concern about migrant numbers and feel that this might be due to some migrants, in vulnerable positions, not availing themselves to being counted or that foreign nationals may have reported themselves as South African born … Whilst the outcome of the questions on international migration might not be as expected, there are a few mitigating factors we would like to draw your attention to.

“Census 2022 took place at a time when we just came out of the Covid-19 restrictions on mobility which had an impact not only on the environment in which the Census was done but on the mobility of people during a time of much uncertainty.

“At the time of the enumeration, there was some anti-migrant sentiment on the ground with various vigilante groups wanting to determine the legal status of various migrants in various parts of the country.

“In December 2021, a decision was taken not to renew the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits and holders of these were given 12 months to get other types of permits.

“The social unrest that took place in July of 2021 had after-effects going into 2022, particularly amongst migrant groups. Burning of trucks that were part of the 2021 violence repeated itself in 2022 by targeting foreign truck drivers.

 “A combination of these events may all have contributed to foreign-born persons in vulnerable circumstances or amongst the undocumented to either avoid being counted or to misrepresent themselves and report themselves as being born in South Africa.

“Further points to consider are that between 2011 and 2022 there are a lot of fluctuations in between these two points in time with regards to human mobility. By looking at only those two points you would be missing a lot of the fluctuations related to human mobility, especially the slow down and the pickup of movement due to Covid-19 as well as the changes due to the policy environment,” Mpetsheni writes.

The accuracy of the migration statistics is not a matter of only esoteric interest. 

It affects planning and policy, with significant budgetary implications. The Health, Human Settlements and Police ministers have all at some stage in the past year blamed migrants for their departments being unable to deliver on their mandates.  

There are also potentially life-and-death consequences. In democratically fragile countries with great disparities in wealth, there’s always plenty of politically flammable material lying around to fuel the demagogues. One such incendiary is the scapegoating of foreigners for ills that they may have little or no hand in. 

Despite the emotive blather about ubuntu and the pan-African posturing about a borderless continent, xenophobia is never far below the surface in South Africa. In 2008, countrywide attacks on foreigners left at least 62 people dead. While there has been no single outburst as grave since, the frequency of eruptions appears to have picked up pace and, as Stats SA alluded to in its reply, foreign truck drivers have regularly in recent years been violently targeted.

Undocumented migrants, 99% of whom are from elsewhere on the continent, are vilified on social media as being responsible for every imaginable ill besetting the country. With the emergence last year of the Dudulua Movement — from the isiZulu word “to push” — anti-migrant vigilantism is moving from the largely spontaneous and uncoordinated to the sinisterly organised.

Against a backdrop of increasing unemployment, and infrastructural and societal collapse, with population growth consistently outstripping economic growth, the conditions for demagoguery are perfect. With next year’s general election looming, there is every possibility of these resentments and emotions — abetted by uncertainty over the true scale of the problem — being exploited by unscrupulous politicians. 

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