Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


This report examines the obstacles to access by Zimbabwean children and students to schools and tertiary institutions in South Africa. There is a common assumption in South Africa that these children and students have no right to an educa­tion in South Africa. In fact, this view contravenes various international human rights conventions to which South Africa is a signatory. At the regional level, it is inconsistent with the SADC Education Protocol. At the national level, it violates the South African Constitution as well as legislation and stated government policies concerning the access of all children in the country to education. The question addressed in this report is whether school boards and principals follow popular sentiment or whether they honour international, regional and national obligations. The report focuses specifically on the case of Zimbabwean migrant children and students, following persistent reports that they are regularly denied access to the South African education system.

The report shows that school boards and principals are caught between contradictory instructions from the Departments of Education and Home Affairs. The former, acting in a way that is consistent with the Bill of Rights, directs that schools should not deny education to any child, regardless of their national origin or legal status in the country. The Department of Home Affairs, on the other hand, follows the directives of the 2002 Immigration Act which places schools in the position of having to enforce immigration policy. This contradiction certainly needs to be resolved and there is only one way this could be done: by amending the immigration legislation and regulations to make it clear that it is not the duty of schools to deny an education to some children or to report them to the authorities.

Levels of xenophobia are extremely high in South African society. Xenophobic attitudes culminated in widespread xenophobic violence in 2008 that left over 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced from their communities. Among their number were many children. Migrant children were therefore directly exposed to the violence and venom of xenophobic mobs. Many more would have witnessed these disturbing scenes in the media. The other question addressed in this report is whether xenophobia permeates the school system as well. In other words, once the obstacles to school access are overcome, what kind of reception do migrant children receive from South African teachers and pupils. Some isolated case studies have suggested that non-South African children are not made to feel welcome in South African schools and that the xenophobic attitudes of parents are reproduced by their children. This study affords the opportunity to revisit this question and to ask how Zimbabwean children are treated by their fellow learners and by teachers in the classroom and playground.

The report is based on research in six communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg conducted in September 2010 and examines the experiences of Zimbabwean migrant parents, children and students who seek to gain admission to public schools and tertiary institutions in South Africa. The report first examines the constitutional and legal rights of foreign migrants to an education in South Africa. The next section reviews the findings of previous studies that suggest that migrant children and students face significant difficulties and prejudice in South Africa. The ensuing sections of the report present and discuss our research findings on the current experiences of Zimbabwean migrants with the South African educational system. Finally, the report makes recommendations on how the situation can be improved.