“With an estimated minimum of 15million illegal immigrants in South Africa, according to SA Home affairs (probably a lot more) that makes up between 20% to 25% of our population,” reads a tweet by a member of South African political party ActionSA, Marcia Barron.
Her post, dated 1 July 2023, repeats a claim that has done the rounds repeatedly on social media over the years. It first appeared in a November 2020 tweet by Herman Mashaba, leader of ActionSA and ex-mayor of the city of Johannesburg in Gauteng province.
After Mashaba made the claim, Africa Check debunked it, finding that it was a misinterpretation of data from the World Bank. Mashaba backtracked a few days later, acknowledging in a statement that the figure of 15 million undocumented immigrants in South Africa “was incorrect”.
However, he did not delete the original tweet. A few months later, in March 2021, the hashtag #15MillionIllegalMigrants surfaced on Twitter, with some users referring back to Mashaba’s original tweet.
Africa Check again found that the claim was incorrect. This 2023 tweet, from another member of ActionSA, has prompted a third review of the evidence.
What the data shows
In 2020, when asked about the source of his claim, Mashaba cited an article published by the Citizen newspaper the previous year. The headline reads: “‘15 million’ people in SA are unregistered, and many are ‘stateless children’.”
But this refers to all people who do not have proof of legal identity, including those who are South African citizens. The data does not include any estimate of the number of people who do not have identity documents and are migrants, refugees or people who are stateless.
Estimating the number of foreign-born people living in South Africa is difficult. Census data provides some indication of migrant numbers, but does not include enough information to estimate their movement over time and immigrants who participate in surveys might be hesitant to say where they were born.
South Africa’s last census was conducted in 2022, but its data has not yet been released. Data from the 2011 census indicated that there were an estimated 2.2 million foreign-born people living in the country. By 2022, this figure had increased to 3.96 million, according to Diego Iturralde, chief director for demography and population statistics at Statistics South Africa. This is around 6.5% of the country’s population and includes all foreign-born people regardless of legal status.
Department of Home Affairs distances itself from ‘15 million’ figure
Barron gave the source of her claim as South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA). This idea may have originated from a 2021 article published by news site Independent Online (IOL). The article reported on a parliamentary meeting in which non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Human Rights (LHA) brought up the World Bank’s figure of 15 million people being without legal documents.
In the IOL article, minister of home affairs Aaron Motsoaledi’s photo was published below the headline. He was not present in the meeting, but the photo may have given the impression that the minister made the claim. The 15 million figure was also then misinterpreted as referring to undocumented immigrants, rather than all unregistered people.
DHA spokesperson Siyabulela Qoza confirmed to Africa Check that neither the minister nor the department had ever made the claim. This was also made clear in a June 2023 tweet by the department’s official Twitter account.
The DHA was not the source of this claim, and there is still no evidence that there are 15 million undocumented immigrants living in South Africa.