Migration from Africa to South Africa - A spatial perspective

August 25, 2015

Xenophobia and attacks on foreigners in South Africa have been in news lately and made international headlines. In April 2015, there was an upsurge in xenophobic attacks throughout the country. The attacks started in Durban and spread to Johannesburg. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has been accused of fuelling the attacks by saying that foreigners should "go back to their countries". However, BBC News reported on 19 April 2015 that he said his comments were distorted. Nevertheless, locals looted foreigners' shops and attacked immigrants in general, forcing hundreds to relocate to police stations across the country. The Malawian authorities subsequently began repatriating their nationals, and a number of other foreign governments also announced that they would evacuate their citizens (Los Angeles Times, 17 April 2015). On 23 April several thousand demonstrators marched through central Johannesburg to protest against a spate of deadly attacks on immigrants. They sang songs denouncing xenophobia and carried banners that read "We are all Africans" as migrant workers crowded balconies, shouting their support (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophobia_in_South_Africa#cite_note-Hundreds-71


The attacks on foreigners were focused in specific locations in Durban and Johannesburg. However, foreign people are settled throughout South Africa but there are clear patterns in distribution that reflects on the very basic fabric of South African society. In this blog we will show how foreigners of African origin are spatially distributed throughout South Africa. The data was obtained from the 2011 national census’ figures on migration.


Before venturing in the spatial distribution of foreigners, the question is how many foreigners are there in South Africa. Various sources makes various estimates. However, the 2011 Census shows the flowing figures:


Table 1: People of South Africa by origin of birth



SADC (Southern African Development Community) is a regional organisation consisting of 14 member countries (Angola, Botswana, Congo (DR), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe). Being South Africa’s immediate neighbours they contribute 90.3% of the migrant population originating in Africa. The rest (9.7%) comes from the rest of Africa. Note that the numbers do not reflect on the legal status of these migrants.


Table 2: Distribution (%) of migrants from Africa



It is clear that Gauteng accommodates more immigrants that the rest of the Country together. The Northern Cape has the least (0.8%) with the Eastern Cape and Free Sate with 3.0% and 3.3% respectively. The rest of the province all have less than 10%. Immigrants from the rest of Africa predominantly settled in Gauteng and the Western Cape.



Utilising Johannesburg as a case study, the map reveals a pattern that is persistent throughout the major urban areas of South Africa. The maps shows the following:


  • Migrants from SADC countries tend to concentrate on the urban edge and particularly on small holdings and farms.

  • There are concentrations in the CBD of the city and it satellite towns such Germiston and Benoni.

  • There is a clear correlation between migrants and settlement in industrial areas.

  • Higher income areas (northern suburbs) attract proportionally more migrants from SADC countries than the traditional black townships.

Turning to migrants from the rest of Africa (excluding the SADC countries) a different pattern emerges.


The following is apparent:

  • There is again a strong propensity to settle close or in the CBD and specifically high density areas and in the older parts of the city close to the CBD. 

  • Settlement is clearly associated with higher income areas with nearly a total absence of settlement by these migrants in previously black townships.

The next series of maps shows the position in Tshwane, eThekwini and Cape Town. There is practically no exception to the identified patterns.






In conclusion it is worth looking at total migration from a broader perspective that shows what is happening in the rural areas.

The following should be noted:


  • There is s propensity to settle in areas close to the border in the northern parts of the country. There are substantial concentrations in the Groblersbrug area (South Africa/Botswana on the N17), Pontdrift (South Africa/Botswana) and Beitbridge (South Africa/Zimbabwe) and between South Africa and Mozambique through the Komatipoort border post. The patterns are less prevalent between South Africa and Lesotho (Quaggasnek might be an exception) and Swaziland and Namibia.

  • There is a close association between high intensity agricultural areas and migrants from SADC countries. This shows in the Musina area, the Louis Trichardt - Levubu area, the irrigation areas around Modjadjiskloof and in the Loskop Dam irrigation areas. The same pattern is also evident in the area cultivating sugarcane around Malelane and Komatipoort in Mpumalanga.

  • There also seems to be propensity to settle close to mining areas. This applies to the Steelpoort area and around Mokopane and Rustenburg. This pattern is also clear around Sishen and Kuruman and the Free State Goldfields.

  • It is clear that very few migrants settle in tribal areas. This might be because tribal chiefs control settlement or the marginal economic opportunities in those areas. This pattern is very strong and there are very little on no migrants in these areas.