Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


South African immigration policy has become extremely restrictive since 1994. Immigration numbers are at an all-time low, even as emigration accelerates. The number of temporary work permits issued has also declined at a time when South Africa has reconnected to the global economy and many companies and investors wish to import high-level skills. Immigration is not viewed as a public policy tool that could benefit South Africa. Immigrants and migrants (even the most highly skilled) are more often stereotyped as a threat to the economic and social interests of South Africans.

Why has South Africa’s first democratic government taken such a dim view of immigration to date? Why is immigration invariably seen as a problem to control rather than an opportunity to exploit? Why has South Africa shifted from being a net immigrant-receiving to an immigrant- exporting nation? These are the first questions addressed in this paper. We address the Draft White Paper’s rationale for a restrictionist policy and review various other explanations that have been advanced to explain post-apartheid policy.

International experience suggests that skilled immigrants and migrants make important contributions to any country’s economic growth and development. Immigrants can fill the gaps created by emigrating skills or the inadequacies of a country’s education and training system. Even more important, skilled immigrants bring innovation to the economy through new ideas and skills. In this regard, there needs to be greater awareness of the profile and contribution of South Africa’s current stock of skilled immigrants.

Studies of skilled immigrants in other countries have shown that they rarely fit the popular negative stereotypes. There is no reason why this should not be true for South Africa as well. One way to assess the potential value to South Africa of a more open attitude towards skilled migration and immigration, is to examine the existing immigration population. If these immigrants conform to the negative stereotypes, there is reason for caution. If, on the other hand, they are making a valuable contribution then the case is strengthened for further immigration. This paper therefore profiles South Africa’s skilled immigrant population: who are these immigrants? When did they come to South Africa? Are there significant differences between pre-1990 and post-1990 immigrants? And how do they perceive and experience living in South Africa?

The paper is based on a detailed survey of 400 skilled foreign nationals in South Africa using face-to-face interviews. The survey provided the following profile of South Africa’s skilled immigrant population:

  • Reflecting South Africa’s pre-1994 immigration policies, the major source region is clearly Europe (47%) and the most important source country, the United Kingdom (31%). But as many as 41% of the sample were from elsewhere in Africa (with 18% from the SADC region and 23% from other countries). This points to a newer, post-1990 trend in South Africa’s immigration experience; the movement of skilled Africans (as immigrants and asylum seekers) to the country following the demise of apartheid.
  • Nearly 73% of South Africa’s skilled immigrants from Europe entered before 1991. In contrast, some 87% of non-SADC African respondents entered after 1991, highlighting the recency of South Africa’s reconnection to the rest of the continent. SADC-country citizens are about evenly split between the two, indicating that the brain drain from neighbouring states began before the formal end of apartheid.
  • Three quarters of skilled non-citizens (mainly whites) who have been in the country since before mid-1991 are permanent residents. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of skilled non-citizens (mainly blacks) who entered after 1991 (91%) are temporary residents on work permits. Nearly 80% of white skilled residents have permanent residence status compared to only 44% of African non-citizens. A restrictionist immigration policy has done little to correct historical inequalities. White non-citizens enjoy rights and privileges that black non-citizens have difficulty accessing.
  • The vast majority of skilled immigrants in South Africa were in full-time employment at home before they left. While we cannot discount improved job opportunities and prospects as a motive for migration, it is clear that unemployment per se is not the reason why skilled immigrants leave their home country and come to South Africa.

Most of South Africa’s skilled immigrant population can therefore be put into one of two groups: (a) white immigrants who entered before 1994 with the security and other rights conferred by permanent residence and (b) black immigrants (more exactly migrants) who have temporary residence status only. The question therefore arises as to what linkages skilled migrants and immigrants maintain with home and their degree of commitment to South Africa:

  • Many non-citizens maintain tangible links with home. One half of the respondents still have a bank account in their home country, 35% still own a house and 34% have investments there. Very few appear to have cut all ties, with only 12% saying they “never” return home. On the other hand, only 16% return home often. Most do so on an irregular basis. Africans are far less likely to do so even though their destinations are closer. These patterns are not unusual. In a transnational world many contemporary immigrants maintain strong and active backward linkages. This does not mean that they are uncommitted to their country of new residence.
  • Only 7% of those with temporary residence and work permits have applied for permanent residence. Is this because they are uninterested or because they see no point in applying since the likelihood of being granted permanent residence is slight? Almost half (45%) said that they would want to become permanent residents if they could, indicating that there is a significant interest in a more lasting commitment to South Africa.
  • South Africa’s skilled non-citizens, both black and white, are highly qualified with 93% holding a post-secondary qualification (and 15% a post-graduate degree. There is a very strong trend for post-1991 arrivals to be better educated. Almost 70% of skilled non-citizens with university degrees and 60% with postgraduate training arrived after 1991. This finding clearly contradicts the idea that the “quality” of immigrants to South Africa has been in decline. Under apartheid, a white skin was the usual passport to entry. Under the new dispensation, skills and value have become much more important determinants.
  • Skilled non-citizens are high wage earners with 25% earning more than R20,000 per month, and 59% earning more than R10,000 per month. White immigrants tend to earn more, on average, that black.

The survey showed that skilled non-citizens are very satisfied with their personal economic conditions in South Africa, access to health care and quality schooling, and the cost of living. This extends across respondents from differing areas of origin. They are much less satisfied with the standard of services available in South Africa. Finally, there is an overwhelming concern about the lack of personal and family safety. Black non-citizens are far more positive about the future than white, reflecting the same division between white and black South Africans.

Several policy-related conclusions and recommendations can be drawn from this research.

  • “Brain drain” pessimism has focused mainly on the exit of skills from South Africa with little focus on what South Africa can do to attract more skilled workers from abroad or to keep those who are already here. Lurking behind much of this one-sided focus is the misguided assumption that national development and skills in-migration are incompatible. In fact, the opposite is the case.
  • There are clearly very important changes afoot in the composition of the skilled foreign workforce in South Africa. Compared to the situation just a decade ago when a similar survey would have been hard pressed to find significant numbers of black skilled workers from the rest of Africa, 41% of this sample were from Africa. This seems to suggest that South Africa is in a position to capitalize on its comparative developmental advantages over the rest of the continent as an attractive destination for skilled workers.
  • At the moment, skilled Africans are widely satisfied with South Africa, and fairly optimistic about its future. What is required to keep them is, first and foremost, a change in their treatment at the hands of ordinary South Africans and their government. In this regard, the problem of keeping skilled Africans appears to be the same problem confronting the formulation of a more rational immigration policy in general: xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination against foreigners, particularly those from the rest of Africa.
  • South Africa has an important opportunity to enter the global market for skilled migrants and immigrants. Further prevarication and suspicion is counter-productive. In the last year, the Minister of Home Affairs has responded to criticism of government policy by proposing a relaxation of rules of entry for skilled immigrants. This has not yet translated into practical policy measures. The new Immigration Bill will produce a new regulatory framework but does not, of itself, guarantee any change unless there is the political will and a changed mindset.

We recommend that the ANC government articulate a position on skilled immigration as a matter of priority. Implementation of immigration policy is rightly a line function of the Home Affairs Minister. But it cannot simply be assumed that his views are necessarily those of the ANC. Is the ANC, for example, prepared to endorse and work to implement the Minister’s new stance on skilled migration, as articulated in the Immigration Bill and various public speeches? If so, a major change in South Africa’s restrictionist immigration policy is inevitable.