Fact checking organisation Africa Check has called out former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba for claiming in a tweet that there were 15-million “undocumented foreigners” living in South Africa.
The group said it’s not the first time Mashaba has cited startling migration figures, claiming in 2017 that 80% of Johannesburg’s inner city residents were undocumented migrants. Available data did not support his claim, it said.
Africa Check said several readers had asked the organisation to check if Mashaba’s figure of 15-million undocumented migrants was correct.
Unregistered vs undocumented
When pressed for a source, Mashaba shared a link to a news article from the online news website, the Citizen.
The article, published in November 2019, was headlined “15-million” people in SA are unregistered, and many are “stateless children.” The report further stated that “the World Bank claims that the country has more than 15-million unregistered people.”
A 2018 dataset from the World Bank does provide estimates of the total number of adults and children in 151 economies who do not have “proof of legal identity.”
“The data shows that there were 15.3-million people without identification documents in South Africa in 2018. The figure refers to both citizens and foreign residents of the country.”
But the data set does not provide information on the number of “migrants, refugees and stateless persons” without South African identity documents.
These people may have other official forms of identification, such as a passport from their country of origin, said Africa Check.
Facts, and correct numbers, matter
After linking to his source, Mashaba added that “ultimately the exact number matters less than what [the Department of Home Affairs] is doing to address this concern.”
But numbers do matter, particularly when they are being shared by public figures, Africa Check emphasised.
“South Africa faces severe challenges of inequality and insecurity,” Loren Landau, professor of migration and development at Oxford University’s Department of International Development, told Africa Check.
“Neither of these is due to immigration and they cannot be effectively addressed without first identifying their sources and realistic solutions.Offering up international migrants as the ‘bogeymen’ responsible for South Africa’s shortcomings draws attention away from the very real difficulties they face.”
Research shows inaccurate information contributes to negative stereotypes around foreign-born migrants in South Africa and can reinforce often unfounded fears that the country is “overrun” by immigrants, Landau added.
3.9-million foreign-born people – Stats SA
Migrants are often referred to as “undocumented” because they may not have legal permission to be in the country or may have overstayed their legal right to remain in the country.
Africa Check said it’s difficult to account for every undocumented migrant, but available datasets “point to a figure much lower than 15-million.”
South Africa’s most recent census is from 2011 and showed that approximately 2.2-million foreign-born people were living in South Africa.
Using the country’s 2020 mid-year population estimates, Stats SA estimates the number of foreign-born people living in South Africa at around 3.9-million, Diego Iturralde, chief director of demography and population statistics at Stats SA, told Africa Check.
“This includes naturalised South Africans, all major categories of migrants with permits and visas, as well as undocumented migrants.”
4.2-million international migrants – UN
The United Nations population division estimates that there were 4.2-million international migrants living in South Africa in 2019.
This, it said, represents 7.2% of the country’s total population of 59.6 million people.
While estimating the number of undocumented migrants is complex, Iturralde said an influx of undocumented migrants would leave behind a demographic footprint.
“You would see a surge of deaths and of births to female migrants in the relevant age groups and in the regions where migrants are found.”
Conclusion: Number cited refers to people without proof of legal identity
The number, 15m, which Mashaba cited refers to both citizens and foreigners residents who do not have “proof of legal identity,” concluded Africa Check.
While working out the exact number of undocumented migrants in the country is complex, the latest estimates do not support Mashaba’s widely shared statement, said the fact check organisation.
“We rate his claim incorrect.”