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‘Millions’ of Zimbabweans living in South Africa? Data doesn’t back claim

A member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress claimed that millions of Zimbabweans live in the country, we checked.

This article is more than 5 years old

  • The ANC’s Lindiwe Zulu said there were “millions of Zimbabweans living in South Africa” and she would like them to help resolve the conflict in their country.

  • Data from Statistics South Africa and the UN puts the number of migrants from Zimbabwe living in South Africa at well under a million.

  • But a UN expert said South Africa was a “very difficult case” when it came to estimating the number and origins of migrants in the country.

A member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has called on local Zimbabweans to help resolve the conflict in their home country.

“We have got millions of Zimbabweans living in South Africa,” Lindiwe Zulu, a national minister and chair of the ANC’s subcommittee on international relations, said at a media briefing.

“We would like to see them being involved in the resolution of the conflict in Zimbabwe.”

Does data back up Zulu’s claim that there are “millions” of Zimbabweans in South Africa? We checked.

No response from officials

Africa Check contacted the minister’s office for the source of her data. They directed us to the department of home affairs and the Zimbabwean embassy.

So far, neither body has responded to our questions. (Note: We will update this report if we get a response.)

A difficult claim to check

The claim that “millions of Zimbabweans” live in South Africa is not new. And “millions” means at least 2 million.

But checking the claim is difficult, said Prof Tom Moultrie. “There is a real shortage of hard data on how many Zimbabweans are in the country.”

Moultrie is the director of the Centre for Actuarial Research (CARe) at the University of Cape Town. His research has focused on demography and the analysis of census and survey data.

“The population of Zimbabwe is only about 12 or 13 million people,” he said. So 2 million people leaving the country would be significant.

“If there are ‘millions’ of Zimbabweans [in South Africa], then that means one-sixth of the population that was in Zimbabwe is now in South Africa.”

Official stats don’t support claim

South Africa’s national statistics agency, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), publishes estimates on the number of people in the country who were born elsewhere.

The 2011 census estimated there were 2,188,872 foreign-born people living in South Africa. Of these, 672,308 were from Zimbabwe.

The 2016 community survey’s estimate of migrants was much lower, at 1,578,541. Of these, 574,047 were from Zimbabwe. (Note: The agency has acknowledged that the decrease in numbers is unusual and said it is investigating the drop.)

In 2018 statistician-general Risenga Maluleke wrote a opinion piece for Africa Check in which he said Stats SA now estimates there are “approximately 4 million foreign-born people in South Africa”.

But the agency hasn’t released a breakdown of the countries these migrants are from.

How many people aren’t counted?

“It is important to note that the population census enumerates all people within the borders of South Africa, irrespective of their citizenship or migratory status,” Maluleke wrote

“It is not the mandate of Stats SA to determine whether people born outside South Africa are documented or not.”

Africa Check has analysed previous claims that Stats SA undercounts the number of migrants in South Africa and even the population of the country itself. Neither claim could be substantiated.

Loren Landau, the South African research chair in mobility and the politics of difference, previously told Africa Check he had “never seen any justification for a particular, higher figure”. Landau is also the former director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University.

Stats SA may not count some undocumented migrants in their surveys, but the vast majority of migrants would be recorded, according to Landau. In a census, undocumented migrants might avoid census enumerators during the actual count, but would still be accounted for in the post-enumeration survey.

United Nations estimates

The UN Population Division releases annual estimates of international migrants by age, sex and origin.

“South Africa presents a very difficult case for estimating the total stock of international migrants,” the division’s Pablo Lattes told Africa Check.

Estimated number of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa
Year Zimbabweans
2000 127,073
2005 220,867
2010 470,423
2015 604,248
2017 649,385

Source:  United Nations Population Division

The latest estimate, for 2017, put South Africa’s total migrant population at just over 4 million. The number of Zimbabweans was estimated at 649,385.

Lattes added that there was “significant” uncertainty about the origin of migrants in South Africa.

Conclusion: No data backs claim, but still uncertainty on origin of migrants in South Africa

A national minister said “millions of Zimbabweans” were “living in South Africa”. She called on them to help resolve the crisis in their home country.

“Millions” means at least 2 million. Zimbabwe’s population is only 12 to 13 million, an expert said, so the claim would mean at least one-sixth of the country’s people were now living in South Africa.

Data from Statistics South Africa doesn’t support Zulu’s claim. Migrants from Zimbabwe were estimated at 672,308 in the 2011 census, and at 574,047 in the 2016 community survey.

But what if Stats SA undercounts the number of migrants? One expert said he had “never seen any justification for a particular, higher figure”. Some migrants may not be counted, but the vast majority would.

The UN population division estimates there were 649,385 migrants from Zimbabwe in South Africa in 2017.

But a UN expert said South Africa was a “very difficult case” when it came to estimating migrant numbers, and there was “significant” uncertainty about the origin of migrants living in the country.

We therefore rate the claim as unproven.

Edited by Kate Wilkinson

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