Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


This policy brief discusses a key paradox in relation to Zimbabwean migration into South Africa. While Zimbabwean migration since 2000 has been the largest concentrated flow in South African history, South Africa’s reaction to this movement has been characterised by the attempt to continue with ‘business as usual’ and ‘no crisis’ responses.1 Compared with most other developed and developing countries, where an inflow of tens or hundreds of thousands of people is usually treated as a political crisis, such a non-response to over a million immigrants requires explanation.

The lack of commensurate responses is especially noticeable within the various departments of the South African government, but also within much of organised civil society. The scale and range of responses has addressed neither the scale nor the specific nature of Zimbabwean migration.2 In practice, therefore, addressing migrant needs and migration impacts is left to social networks among Zimbabweans, (often poor) South African citizens and local level public service providers such as local clinics. As a result of this fragmented and inadequate set of responses there are two major gaps:

  • firstly between the needs of Zimbabwean migrants and the formal institutional frameworks and services provided to them, and
  • secondly between the impacts of Zimbabwean migration on South African society and its ability to manage these impacts.

There has been increasing documentation of Zimbabwean migrants’ welfare needs in South Africa (Bloch 2005; Zimbabwe Torture Victims Project 2005; Makina 2007; CoRMSA 2008; Human Rights Watch 2008). However, in parallel to the lack of coherent government and civil society responses to Zimbabwean migration, there has been a relative dearth of academic or think-tank documentation or analysis of these responses, and indeed of the implications of non-response for South Africa (Polzer 2008). Crucially, there has been no serious research on the dispersed and privatised responses by Zimbabwean networks and South African citizens, even though the aggregate impact of these actors is likely to be at least as significant, if not more so, than formal responses.