Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



South Africans believe that immigrants are largely responsible for the post-1994 crime wave in the country. In a national survey of South African citizens conducted recently by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), for example, respondents were asked what, if anything, they had to fear about people from neighbouring countries (McDonald 2000: 209). Almost half the population (48%) felt that migrants were a “criminal threat” (compared to 37% who thought they were a threat to jobs and the economy, and 29% who thought they were a health threat). The simplistic, and largely unsubstantiated, association of foreignness with criminality, job-stealing and disease is echoed in the rhetoric of state and the media. Danso and McDonald (2001), for example, show how the reporting of immigration is suffused with the notion that South Africa’s crime problem is largely the fault of the foreigner.

At the official level, a causal relationship between migration and criminality is often assumed to be self-evident. Crime statistics for police operations regularly report the apprehension of “illegal immigrants” in the same breath as arrests for armed robbery, car-jackings and rape. Officials and politicians from all parties subscribe to a discourse in which foreignness and criminality are assumed to be closely correlated. Undocumented migrants are not only criminals by virtue of their unauthorized presence in the country but are by definition also engaged in other forms of crime. The ANC’s exDirector of General of Home Affairs made the extraordinary claim before Parliament in March 2002, for example, that “approximately 90% of foreign persons, who are in the RSA with fraudulent documents, i.e. either citizenship or migration documents, are involved in other crimes as well…. it is quicker to charge these criminals for their false documentation and then to deport them than to pursue the long route in respect of the other crimes that are committed” (Masetlha 2002).

The data to support or contest the “self-evident” association between migration and criminality is not available, either to those who make the claims or to the authors. However, it is possible to subvert the simplistic idea that migrants from other countries in Africa (and particularly neighbouring countries) are, by definition, a criminal threat. The first point to make is that migrants themselves are generally extremely apprehensive about crime in South Africa. Migrants are certainly more nervous than citizens about the crime situation in South Africa. Why, if migrants are uniquely responsible for crime, should they be so worried about the criminal? In one SAMP study, a sample of migrants in South Africa were asked to compare standards in their home country with those in South Africa. As many as 86% said that the crime situation was better at home, with only 4% saying that things were worse there (McDonald 2000: 183). Their apprehensiveness is born of personal experience; as many as 42% said they had been robbed, 24% had been harassed and 23% assaulted (McDonald 2000: 281).

The second point relates to the commonplace idea that South Africa is being inundated by unwanted immigrants, refugees and migrants. There can be little doubt that few South Africans want foreigners in the country (Crush 2001). But is this because the country is really under siege? Do the metaphors that accompany official and media depictions of migration (tidal waves, floods, being swamped) have any basis in reality? Here there is an unfortunate association with the discourse of crime. What better image can there be than the idea that a crime “wave” is caused by a “flood” of immigrants? All of these aquatic metaphors should be consigned to a watery grave, along with the fallacious figures on which they are based.

The third point is that migrants are usually spoken about in highly generalized language which fails to recognize the complexity of the migration phenomenon and the manifold distinctions between different kinds of migrants and immigrants. If every non-citizen in the country is made to carry the pejorative label of “alien” or “foreigner” or “makwerekwere”, it is a small step to the conclusion that they must be up to no good. This brief therefore aims to disaggregate “migration” to show the variety and complexity of migration streams to post-apartheid South Africa. If any conclusions are to be drawn about the relationship between migration and crime, this is an essential first step. In other words, different categories of migrants are inherently more likely than others to be vulnerable to crime; as victims or perpetrators. It is therefore critical to understand these distinctions at the outset. While the variety and complexity of migrant movements to South Africa has increased significantly with the collapse of apartheid, the majority of these streams, and their participants, have no obvious connection with or interest in crime.