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15 million ‘undocumented foreigners’ in South Africa? Herman Mashaba wrong again

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  • Mashaba pointed to a newspaper article from November 2019 which claimed 15 million people in South Africa were “unregistered”.

  • According to a 2018 World Bank dataset, there were 15.3 million people without identification documents in South Africa, but these are not necessarily “undocumented foreigners”.

  • Statistics South Africa estimates there are 3.9 million foreign-born people living in South Africa in 2020.

UPDATE: On 22 November 2020 Herman Mashaba released a statement acknowledging that the figure he shared was "incorrect".

Herman Mashaba, former mayor of South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, caused a social media stir in November 2020 when he tweeted that there were 15 million “undocumented foreigners” living in South Africa.

The country has a population of 59.6 million

This is not the first time Mashaba has cited startling migration figures. In 2017 he claimed that 80% of Johannesburg’s inner city residents were undocumented migrants. Available data did not support his claim. 

Several Africa Check readers asked us to check if Mashaba’s figure of 15 million undocumented migrants was correct. Here’s what the latest data shows. 

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 article said 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 bank says there isn’t a universally accepted definition of “proof of identity”. To get around this, it uses a combination of administrative data and other sources such as voter data.

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 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.

Stats SA: 3.9 million foreign-born people

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. 

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,” he said. 

UN: 4.2 million international migrants

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.   

While estimating the number of undocumented migrants is complex, Iturralde previously 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.”

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. 

“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, he said.   

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.

Conclusion: Number cited refers to people without proof of legal identity

Former mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, recently claimed that there are 15 million “undocumented foreigners” in South Africa. But the number he cited refers to both citizens and residents who do not have “proof of legal identity”.

According to Stats SA, the number of foreign-born people living in South Africa in 2020 is around 3.9 million. This includes both the documented and undocumented. The UN population division put the number at 4.2 million in 2019. 

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. We rate his claim incorrect. 

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