Xenophobia in South Africa: Are migrants to blame for the increase in crime?

This blog began looking at the spike in cases of xenophobia in South Africa with a view to assessing whether South Africa’s law and policy addresses the causes of xenophobia.

Before looking at the law, it’s worth focusing on the claim that the increase in xenophobic violence could be explained as a reaction to the increase in crime committed by migrants themselves. The idea that migrants in South Africa are responsible for the increase in crime has been a dog-whistle theme spread by a number of public figures. It is suggested this has in turn fuelled the rise in xenophobic violence as a reaction to such sentiments.

Prejudicial comments by public figures

Over the 2016–17 period, the Johannesburg Mayor made statements described as reckless and having the potential to inflame xenophobic tensions. His xenophobic comments included the claim that Johannesburg’s inner city was made up of 80% undocumented foreigners despite various sources of data contradicting this claim and some official statistics putting the percentage of migrants in Johannesburg as making up only 26.2% of inner city residents.

Similarly, former South African President Jacob Zuma in April 2015 made a statement that a Mozambican national who was brutally killed during an outbreak of xenophobic attacks was an illegal immigrant using a false name. This was followed in 2017 by the Police Commissioner of Gauteng Province stating that about 60% of the suspects arrested for violent crimes in the province were illegal immigrants.

However, a close scrutiny of the Statistics South Africa website and its reports as well as the most recent crime report from the South African Police Service itself does not reveal any connection between the crimes reported and illegal immigrants. Further, the claims made by the Police Commissioner were not supported by any reference to published official statistics drawing a link between illegal immigrants and crime in South Africa.

The truth

The most comprehensive set of statistics available do not support the conclusion that migrant communities are responsible for the rise in violent crime. This set of statistics was presented to the South African Parliament on 23 June 2017 by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services. The statistics revealed that of the total prison population of 157,013 at the end of 2016, only 11,842 were foreign. This meant that only 7.5% of the entire prison population that year was foreign. Further, of the 11,842 foreign prisoners 7,345 had been sentenced and 4,497 were awaiting trial, with 1380 being prosecuted for being in the country illegally. Of the 7,345 foreigners actually sentenced for crimes only 3,434 were convicted of contact crimes, a major concern of most South Africans.

This would suggest that only 29% of foreign prisoners have been convicted of contact crimes; this makes up only 2% of the entire prison population in South Africa. Additionally with an estimated 1.6 million foreign-born individuals living in South Africa in 2016, those sentenced for contact crimes make up only 0.21% of the migrant community. This is hardly sound basis for blaming the entire community for the increase in crime


There is no empirical basis for the claim that migrants are responsible for the increase in crime in South Africa. Despite this fact, public figures routinely stereotype migrants as responsible for the increase in crime and use them as convenient scapegoats for policy failures and limited resources such as jobs and education. This in turn feeds into an innate suspicion and dislike of foreigners in parts of South Africa’s communities leading to the outbreaks of xenophobic violence South Africa has come to be known for. In the next article, this blog will assess the government’s response to xenophobia.

This article has been adapted from submissions made before the South African Human Rights Commission’s ‘National Hearing on Cohesion and Xenophobia in South Africa’. The submissions were made on behalf of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and drafted by Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh and Walker Syachalinga.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s