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Mayor’s claim - undocumented foreigners make up 80% of Joburg inner city - ‘absurd’

The mayor of Johannesburg does not mince his word when it comes to the state of the inner city. Herman Mashaba has often spoken of his plans to clean up the central business district of South Africa’s city of gold.

But one claim keeps resurfacing.

“As many as 80% of the inner city residents are undocumented foreigners,” Mashaba told business news publication Bloomberg. He said something similar in a Radio 702 interview before.

‘Relates to mayor’s experience’


Johannesburg’s inner city includes wards 58, 59, 60, 62, 63, 64, 66, 67, 123 and 124, Mashaba’s acting spokesman, Luyanda Mfeka, told Africa Check.  

He said the mayor’s statement had to be understood in relation to his experience with hijacked buildings in the inner city. (Note: Hijacked buildings are residential property taken over by individuals or groups who are not the owners. Residents are then ordered to pay rent to them and not to the landlord or rightful owners.)

Mfeka told Africa Check that raids on abandoned buildings revealed “that a large portion of the specified buildings’ inhabitants are undocumented foreign nationals”.

“In the instance of the Cape York building, a formerly hijacked building within the inner city, of the 343 residents in the building, 303 residents were identified as undocumented foreign nationals,” said Mfeka. “That is just over 88% of the inhabitants.”

The mayor had attended a raid of the Cape York building in May to search for a missing teenager. It was evacuated in early July after seven residents died in a fire.

Mashaba’s office was unable to provide information on how the residents’ nationalities were established, referring us to the department of home affairs. But director of deportations, Nolwandle Qaba, told us that they “are unable to say how many undocumented migrants live in a particular building”, including Cape York.

City of Joburg Group Forensic Investigative Services spokesman Lucky Sindane told Africa Check that “no data was collected at Cape York”.

Sindane said that a planned raid at the building was put on hold as a result of the fire.

“It is during these crime prevention operations (raids) that we work with the social development department and other stakeholders [and] that data is collected on the residents,” he said. (Note: Mfeka responded to our findings. We posted his full comment at the bottom of this piece.)

Migrants make up 26.2% of inner city residents


The Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) is a partnership between the Universities of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand as well as the Gauteng provincial government. The GCRO builds datasets that can be used to inform the development of cities in the province.

Every two years, the GCRO conducts a Quality of Life survey. During the most recent one, carried out between July 2015 and May 2016, about 30,000 respondents from across Gauteng were surveyed. According to the GCRO, the sample of respondents was designed to be representative at ward level for each of the 508 wards in the province.

A researcher at the GCRO, Christian Hamann, told Africa Check that the survey “does not point to proportions as large as 80%” of inner city residents being immigrants.

According to GCRO director Rob Moore, migrants who participated in the survey were not asked whether they are documented or not, so both documented and undocumented cross-border migrants would have been included.  

Hamann analysed data for the inner city’s wards from the Quality of Life survey for Africa Check. It showed that of the respondents in the inner city wards:

  • 26.2% had migrated to Gauteng from another country,

  • 25.4% had migrated from another province,

  • 48.5% had been born in Gauteng.


“It is important to note that these figures from the Quality of Life survey are average figures for the wards in the Johannesburg inner city and do not necessarily reflect the population demographic that might be found in hijacked buildings,” Hamann said. “This would require a dedicated study of its own to determine.”

Buildings raided mostly housed South Africans


A report by the city’s social development department on the raids of five derelict buildings in Doornfontein (ward 123) in July 2017 also does not support the mayor’s figure.

The report stated that 183 residents were profiled, with only 30.6% of them being foreign nationals. The majority were undocumented (47) and the department of home affairs detained them. (Note: On another page, the report claims that 150 of the 183 residents were South African. We have followed up with the department for clarity.)

Data from South Africa’s last census in 2011 similarly contradicts the mayor. Africa Check used Wazimap, an interactive website that provides access to census data, to pull data on the estimated share of people born outside the country in the inner city wards.

The highest share of foreign-born was in ward 64 (Berea and Hillbrow), where 43% of the respondents indicated they were born outside South Africa.

During the census, people were asked where they were born, not whether they are documented or not. It is therefore expected that “all types of immigrants” will be counted, a discussion document from Stats SA stated.


Prof Loren Landau from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand said that Stats SA may undercount the number of foreigners but that “there is no reason to believe that their estimates are off by an order of magnitude”.

“The mayor’s statement is an absurd and dangerous distortion of the truth. While there may be buildings or maybe even blocks in Johannesburg that are 80% foreign-born, even the inner city remains primarily South African.”

Conclusion: Available data does not back up claim


When Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba told a publication that as many as 80% of the inner city’s residents are undocumented foreigners, he was basing it on his experience of hijacked buildings, a spokesman told Africa Check.

Three different sources of data contradict this. A province-wide survey of all wards suggested that 26.2% of residents in Johannesburg inner city wards migrated from another country.

A report on raids of 5 hijacked buildings in an inner city ward showed that the majority of residents were South African. Furthermore, results from South Africa’s last census indicate that the share of foreign-born residents in the inner city wards does not exceed 43%.

While researchers say that the share of foreign nationals may be as high as 80% in individual buildings, no data supports the mayor’s blanket claim about the inner city.

Further Reading

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