JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 28: Protesters
A rally held to protest against xenophobia in Johannesburg on March 28, 2017. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

  • International migrants now constitute 7.2% of the South African population, up from 2.8% in 2005.
  • SA continues to attract immigrants thanks to relative political stability – and they easily outnumber those South Africans emigrant to other parts of the world.
  • Zimbabwe and Mozambique are South Africa’s most significant sources of emigrants, even though the United Nations can be a little confused about that.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.


The size of the South African economy and its relative political stability is attracting increasing numbers of immigrants, who outnumber those emigrating to elsewhere in the world – despite recent outbreaks of violence against foreigners from elsewhere in Africa, and a perception of widespread xenophobia.

In 2005, international migrants comprised 2.8% of South Africa’s population. By 2019, this figure had risen to 7.2%.

“South Africa has…experienced high volumes of immigration in recent years, attracting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from within and outside southern Africa,” according to the World Migration report 2020, published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

See also: Foreign refugees in South Africa have just been banned from political activity – as SA builds 'a paper wall' against immigration

Other countries with a significant portion of their population made up by foreigners include Qatar, where immigrants make up 78.7% of the populace, Singapore (37.1%), Canada (21.3%), and Sweden (20%).

Worldwide, migrants make up 3.5% of the global population in 2020 up from 2.8% in 2000 and 2.3% in 1970.

South Africa is the most significant migration destination country in Africa, with around four million international newcomers living in the country.

Those four million people mean South Africa ranks fourteenth in the world by the size of its migrant population.

The United States is the top such destination and has an expatriate population of 50.7 million.

Zimbabwe is SA's biggest source of immigrants – despite the UN saying otherwise

Zimbabwe and Mozambique are South Africa’s top sources of immigrants, according to the report – though it is wrong about their proportion. According to the IMO, and United Nations figures it draws from, Mozambicans living in SA outnumber Zimbabweans living in SA by a big margin. This is a complete reversal of the findings of SA's most recent census.

When Business Insider contacted the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN Desa), it admitted there had been a mistake in the numbers.

Pablo Lattes, a UN Desa population affairs officer, based in New York, says: “Since our publication [of the report published in late 2019], we have been contacted by [South Africa's statistical organisation StatsSA] and it seems we have somehow inverted the values of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.”

“We plan to review our estimates this year (2020 revision) and will correct these values,” Lattes says.

So, the correct figures are that as of 2019, the UN estimated that 716,057 Zimbabweans and 376,668 Mozambicans respectively reside in the country.

Those estimates are not free of controversy, though.

Lattes says: “For 99% of our estimates (for all countries) we only use official statistics for migrants and UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates for refugees and asylum seekers. In the case of South Africa, non-official estimates show an extreme variation, so it was tough for us to decide, which one to use or discard.”

That initial mix-up of numbers is concerning, said David Rose, a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Statistics and Actuarial Science, speaking in his personal capacity and without an in-depth study of the issue.

“Although the figures between the UN and StatsSA are much closer [after the switch], they are not excessively close. It would be preferable if the two organisations were to indicate how they came about these figures.”

Whatever the actual immigration number, it easily outstrips emigration from South Africa. The IOM report estimates that 196,142 South Africans have moved to Australia, the largest destinations for South Africans leaving the country.

Immigrants come despite xenophobia – and create jobs.

Over the past ten years, newcomers to South Africa have increasingly faced violence, destruction of property, injury, and sometimes loss of life (though South Africans are far more likely to die in outbreaks of violence ostensibly aimed at foreigners).

Outbreaks of xenophobic violence are most common in poor neighbourhoods, where residents often blame foreign nationals for high rates of crime and job losses, the IOM says.

However, a recent paper on “refugee entrepreneurial economies in urban South Africa” found that refugee enterprises have contributed to the local economy by creating jobs.

An estimated 52% and 45% of foreign-owned businesses in Cape Town and Limpopo, respectively, employ people in their enterprises, with around 50% of these businesses more likely to hire South Africans than foreigners.

The report found that while traditional South African sectors, such as mining, continue to attract foreign workers, but other industries, including finance and information technology, were increasingly attracting expatriates.

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