New York Times & others STILL wrong on number of immigrants in South Africa

Comments 21

Media reported earlier this year that South Africa is home to five million immigrants, fuelling concerns that the country is ‘overrun’ by foreigners. Africa Check asked The New York Times for proof. We investigated the evidence they sent.

When foreigners became the target of xenophobic attacks in South Africa earlier this year, The New York Times reported on the violence, stating as fact: “With Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa is home to about five million immigrants.” Many other media organisations such as Reuters, News24, the BBC and the Daily Mail Online also quoted this figure.

We checked the evidence and, in a report in May, found the five million figure to be exaggerated and unsupported by available data. However, when we wrote to The New York Times to seek a correction, Louis Lucero II, assistant to the senior editor for standards, replied saying that the paper was “confident that no correction is required”.

The Times thought the estimate was reasonable, he said: “As can be expected, estimates vary widely – one study by the University of Pretoria estimates the number to be between 2 million and 8 million. Please find the attached paper on the topic, which summarises various estimates.”

Did we miss crucial research in our original report? Was Africa Check the one needing to issue a correction?

Claim based on journal no longer accredited in SA

Screenshot 2015-07-15 09.24.22The journal article The New York Times sent us, titled “Factors Determining International Migrants’ Involvement in Illegal Trade in South Africa”, was published in September 2014 in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences.

When we investigated, however, we discovered that the South African Department of Higher Education and Training had removed the journal from its list of accredited journals in November last year. This followed allegations that the journal did not meet peer-review standards, accepted plagiarised content and asked payment from academics to have their articles published.

The second alarm bell rang when we discovered that two of the journal authors were facing tender irregularity charges in South Africa, in a separate matter. Oludele Akinloye Akinboade and Mandisa Mokwena are due to stand trial in the Pretoria High Court on 5 October, accused of being involved in corruption, racketeering and fraud.

This is in connection with the irregular awarding of contracts for research and training services at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), which is said to have occurred when Mokwena was working at the tax collection agency between 2007 and 2009.

Estimate in journal was based on media reports

In the meantime – though there was no reference to his work in the article’s bibliography – we tracked down the University of Pretoria (UP) academic whose name appeared in a table summarising immigrant number estimates.

Mike Hough is now an emeritus professor in the politics department of UP.  He said the estimates were not from a study he had conducted but were based on a range of estimates in the media that he summarised in a presentation to a border control conference in March 2011.

Given these problems we submitted the article to Turnitin, a widely used academic plagiarism checker. The results revealed that large sections of the journal article appeared to be copied directly from other sources.

Article plagiarised and subsequently retracted

A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg in April 2015. Photo: AFP/STEFAN HEUNIS
A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg in April 2015. Photo: AFP/STEFAN HEUNIS

Both Akinboade and Mokwena denied they had plagiarised any of the article’s content. “If a citation was inaccurately quoted and not acknowledged this would be an oversight and not tantamount to plagiarism,” Mokwena told us.

But media professor and plagiarism expert at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences, Professor Debora Weber-Wulff, rubbished this. At Africa Check’s request, she compared the Turnitin report with the journal article.

“There is a good bit of plagiarised text here,” she told us. “Authors must demarcate the start, end, and source of anything that is not from them… Often [plagiarisers] say that it was not intended. This, too, does not matter – it is still plagiarism.”

Dr Kevin Behrens, a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics who sits on the School of Clinical Medicine’s plagiarism committee, reached the same conclusion.

“It is very obvious that the authors’ intention is to pass off the words of others as their own. This is blatant plagiarism, by definition… given the number of these instances in this article, one can only conclude that the authors were deliberately taking credit for work that was not theirs,” Behrens said.

Africa Check brought the plagiarism to the attention of the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences. Dr Lisa Licata, from the journal’s editorial office, told Africa Check that the article “was checked and was found to contain plagiarised content”. The journal has now retracted the article and indicated this on its website.

Louis Jacobs, spokesman of the North-West University where Mokwena is a doctoral student and the article’s third author a professor in the School of Economic Sciences, Wynand Grobler, said the issue would be referred to their Institutional Registrar for consideration.

We sent these findings to The New York Times but haven’t yet received a response.

Last census showed around 2.2 million immigrants

The journal article also quoted a 2012 Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) report that supposedly stated that there were an estimated five million illegal immigrants in 2011 in South Africa. We checked, but the Stats SA report doesn’t include this estimate.

Executive manager for demography at Stats SA, Diego Iturralde, confirmed this: “There is by no means a report that cites five million illegal immigrants of any sort from Stats SA.”

The agency’s 2011 census found that there were 2,199,871 people living in South Africa who were born outside the country. Iturralde previously told us that the size of South Africa’s immigrant population was unlikely to have changed significantly since then.

To the best of his knowledge, no other research supports a higher number, Loren Landau, former director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, told us. He said there are many reasons why inflated immigrant numbers have staying power.

“The first is confirmation bias. As people we best remember ‘facts’ and incidents that confirm what we believe,” he said. “The second has to do with an odd and somewhat ironic alignment of interests. As things now stand, officials, business associations, and even some migrant associations and service providers benefit from these inflated number. Whether it is to justify militarising the border, explaining joblessness, or protecting businesses interests, the more we feel threatened the better.”

Conclusion: Claim that SA has 5 million immigrants remains exaggerated and unsupported

When we initially fact-checked the claim made by The New York Times and other media that there are five million immigrants living in South Africa, we found that it was exaggerated and unsupported by available data. In response, the US paper sent us as proof a journal article by local researchers.

That article has now been withdrawn as it was found that the authors had simply copied and pasted large parts of the article from other sources, including apparently a summary of immigrant numbers in media reports – not evidence – by a University of Pretoria academic.

Official South African statistics found that there were 2.2 million foreigners living in South Africa in 2011. While it’s true that many undocumented immigrants may avoid being counted, there is STILL no evidence we have found that this could push the total number of immigrants as high as five million.

In an email sharing our finding with The New York Times, we quoted the Institute for Security Studies on the importance of reporting immigrant numbers correctly.

Consultant Liesl Louw-Vaudran wrote: “In the current debate over xenophobia in South Africa, [exaggerations of immigrant numbers] are extremely dangerous, since they give credence to the belief that South Africa is overrun by foreigners who are stealing local jobs and putting a strain on services.”

Edited by Anim van Wyk & Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Additional reading

Do 5 million immigrants live in S. Africa? The New York Times inflates number

Are there 70-million people in South Africa? The claim is unsubstantiated

ANALYSIS: Are foreigners stealing jobs in South Africa?

How many Zimbabweans live in South Africa? The numbers are unreliable

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Comment on this report

Comments 21
  1. By Conrad

    Internal Security Studies estimated a number of illegal immigrants from 2 to 8 million in 2011. In the very same paper that indicated the clandestine nature of this form of population movement makes it difficult for quantification. I cannot imagine an illegal immigrant raising their hand to be COUNTED!!! I do not understand what you are raising this as the main issue here. This just looks personal.

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    • By Africa Check

      Conrad, we looked for the paper from ‘Internal Security Studies’ that you mentioned but we have not been able to find it. Could you please provide a link?

      While there may be difficulties with counting immigrant populations, that is no reason to cite estimates which are not based on sound research. At the very least, official statistics should be cited alongside media estimates.

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      • By Conrad

        Africa check, GOOGLE IS YOUR FRIEND. An organisation like yours should be able to know this little fact and not be asking silly questions. You people are lazy journalist who find happiness in discrediting peoples hard work. Even by my own assumption Zimbabwean illegal immigrants where more than 3 million 5 years ago.

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      • By Nomqo

        Try this researchers: LMAO

        Strategic Perspectives on Illegal Immigration into South Africa1

        By Hussein Solomon Senior Researcher, Human Security Project, Institute for Defence Policy

        Published in African Security Review Vol 5 No 4, 1996

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  2. By Mr Kingston

    Your article places great emphasis on the two black authors. Does that fact make their stats incorrect? I have privilege knowledge of the two well respected econometric lecturers and I doubt you would be in any position to evaluate the quality of econometric analysis presented in that article. None of the evaluators you have mentioned are Economist for that matter. I do not see the link between the criminal charges they are facing and the quality of their work.

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    • By Africa Check

      Both Akinboade and Mokwena denied that the article was plagiarised, even when presented with expert opinion. They both confirmed that the third author contributed to a section where no plagiarism was detected.

      The data and analysis presented in the journal article is not relevant and was not mentioned in our report. Over 30% of the article was plagiarised. The journal confirmed the plagiarism experts’ opinion and has retracted the article.

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  3. By CJ

    This story should remind researchers of the power they have in shaping society (even though they scarcely remember this). Also, it teaches us to not always accept reports (even by respected papers like the New York Times) on face value. That said, though I do not think that one of the author’s alleged tender-related criminal past should have a direct bearing on the quality of their findings, the fact that the said journal has been de-accredited by the DHET in SA, coupled with the article’s retraction, makes this account by Africa Check believable. Furthermore, it is very difficult to believe that immigration rose by more than 100% over a four-year period (initial under counting and the like notwithstanding). I hope that NYT will issue a response pretty soon.

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  4. By nomqophiso

    What is the race of the third author, seeing that he is not mentioned , I guess he is White. Is that a coincidence, that you chose to mention black authors , seeing that your core team of Editors is White.

    I smell a Racist rat in this article. No one questions the superior and respected credentials of these two black authors, questioned by a white journalists without even an understanding of the content and appreciation of the matter. Please come to Sunnyside you will see more than 7 mililon of us foreign Nationals here

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  5. By ntile

    What are you economic credentials, seeing that you seem to have authority on economic analysis.

    What are the credentials of your experts.. are they Economists

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    • By Nomqo

      I can help with that Ntile. Africa Check claims to have a core team of 3 who are Acting Editor, Anim van Wyk, Their Senior Researcher, Kate Wilkinson and a Data Analyst of sorts called Mina Demian.
      Anim wrote some nefarious horse manure for Beeld, Die Burger, and Volksblad and is still working towards a Masters Degree. I rest my case with disgruntled Afrikanerdom.
      Her sidekick, one Kate Wilkinson has some academic tertiary qualification but worked as a Media Officer for some unbranded NPO. So much for cutting it in the corporate world.
      Now here’s the kicker. The 3rd core team member Mina only joined the team last month with just Matric and no degree whatsoever, though pursuing one, is a former software specialist.
      They needed a software specialist because these bunch of clowns are soft in the head with the inherent white audacity to criticize accomplished black Professors one of whom hails form Oxford.

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  6. By ntile

    he home affairs website cites a 1996 study by the Human Sciences Research Council, which estimated that between 2.5 million and 4.1 million undocumented migrants were living in South Africa, but that survey was conducted before neighbouring Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed.

    It is thought that since 2000 more than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled the country’s economic freefall and political violence, many to South Africa – the continent’s economic powerhouse – and others to countries as far afield as the UK and Australia.

    The SA Police Services (SAPS) in its latest (2008/09) annual report said, “According to various estimates, the number of undocumented immigrants in South Africa may vary between three and six million people.”

    If the upper figure of 6 million is accurate – although other estimates have put the number at 10 million – then about 11 percent of people living in South Africa are undocumented.

    A survey released on 13 November by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), South Africa Survey 2008/2009 – Demographics, estimates the country’s population at 49.32 million.

    ”It would be a very useful thing for the country to know how many people are here, but home affairs inefficiencies are dire and deeply engrained” Marco MacFarlane, SAIRR’s head of research, told IRIN he had heard of estimates of between 500,000 and 2 million undocumented migrants, but their numbers were not included in the demographic survey because “undocumented migrants are undocumented”.

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  7. By Lenky

    Statistical analysis and estimates has always been a disputable subject. But when you present your dispute by bringing externalities to the matter, you tend to miss the a point. Alike n Mandisa whoever they are, is blatantly attach for external reasons. It kinda say to me that u got absolute no understanding of the subject. Tenders and academy is bloody 2 different worlds.

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  8. By Thuthi

    You really have not achieved much if your criticism of an article is based on a journal that does not attract local and international respect. By your own admission may I add. It has since been discontinued. Or is the aim of your article to discredit these authors? If the journal was of good repute it would have eliminated some of the issues that you are raising.

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  9. By william

    Kate, is it an oversight on your part that you did mention the academic titles of these two black authors, or is it because you only have a mere Honours degree.

    You mentioned that Mokwena is doing a doctorate, this can’t be true . I know she has a doctorate. Are you trying to denigrate her.

    What is your authority on the command of Economics.

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    • By Africa Check

      Mokwena told Africa Check that she is currently enrolled at North West University pursuing a doctorate in the economics department. This was confirmed by the university.

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  10. By Zandile D

    I believe that the people who have left comments have missed the purpose of the report. That purpose is to inform us that figures reported by the New York Times regarding the number of immigrants in South Africa are incorrect. This is particularly dangerous considering South Africa has, very recently, suffered from xenophobic attacks. We should welcome this correction.
    Unfortunately, for the journal article authors, this correction comes at the cost of exposing their dirty laundry. This exposé has been researched and is factual, therefore there is very little left up to debate.
    I look forward to seeing how the New York Times shall react. I am sure that they will not miss the point!

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