Guide to immigration in South Africa

While South Africa is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, thousands of people choose to settle in the country each year. For many, the quality of life, the climate and the business opportunities on offer, make it an attractive place to live and to prosper.

(Image: Department of Home Affairs)

Note: This article is currently under review as the regulations covering immigration and visas have been changed. In the meantime, please visit the Department of Home Affairs at for more information.

Brand South Africa reporter

The country limits the number of immigrants each year. This, according to the government, is to protect work opportunities for the country’s vast reserve of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In line with international trends, potential immigrants who fall into the unskilled and semi-skilled categories will normally not be accepted as an immigrant worker in the country.

Those wishing to immigrate to South Africa should also be committed to it, the government says, and be prepared to share their skills and expertise: “South Africa cannot afford to grant permanent residence permits to persons who are not seriously committed to settle in the [country] permanently and to investing their skills, assets, knowledge and experience for the benefit of themselves and the people of South Africa.

“One of the most important aspects of immigration control is therefore that a visible connection be maintained between foreigners working in the [country] and the training of South African nationals.”

Immigration trends

International population movements, influenced as they are by a variety of socioeconomic, political, environmental and other factors, are complex to measure. There are, in fact, no official figures available on the total number of foreign residents in South Africa.

However, figures from South Africa’s 2011 Census suggest that 3.3% — or about 1.7-million — of the country’s 51.7-million population are “non-South African” citizens. According to AfricaCheck, data collated by the World Bank and the United Nations also suggests a migrant population of about 1.86- million people.

A report by Statistics South Africa on immigration statistics drawn from Home Affairs data shows that 1 283 permanent residence permits were issued in 2012. About half of the issued permits were acquired using the relatives’ category status, while only 50 or 4% used refugee status.

Nationals from Zimbabwe (20%), the UK (11%), Congo (7%), China (7%), India (6%), Germany (5%), Nigeria (5%) and DRC (3%) made up almost 64% the recipients of permanent residence permits.

Emigration trends

While reasons for emigration are varied, and unique to individuals, many choose to settle in more developed countries in Europe or North America, where the earning potential for skilled labour tends to be higher.

The exodus of skills from the country have affected the IT industry, the scientific and medical professions, including nursing, as well as teaching.

The downfall of the so-called “brain drain” is a shortage of skilled labour at home. Yet the skills shortfalls are opportunities for some – providing business and work opportunities for a fresh wave of immigrants, and focusing skills development initiatives, as well as guiding tertiary education decisions at home.

Statistics South Africa no longer collects information on emigration. However, data from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) quoted by Politicsweb in 2012 show 588 388 South African emigrants aged 15 or over were living in OECD countries in 2010.

The countries with the highest numbers of individuals born in South Africa are, in descending order: the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, and Canada.

A study released in 2014 by workforce management company Adcorp showed that nearly 359 000 “high skilled South Africans” have returned home from overseas assignments since the global financial crisis of 2008-9.

“This is a sizeable number, representing 18% of the total pool of managers and professionals in South Africa and 12% of the total pool of graduates,” Adcorp said in a statement.

Exceptional people

Ebrahim Ebrahim, the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, told the South African diaspora in Perth Australia in November 2013 that South Africans – no matter where they resided – could still be a part of South Africa’s growth and development.

Brand South Africa’s Global South Africans programme believes South African expats “can be priceless resource for our country – your country – as we strive compete and win in the global economy”, he said.

“Brand South Africa’s US country manager has done some research on America’s South African born population. It currently numbers around 85 000. Its household income is roughly double the US national median, likewise the value of the houses it lives in.

“South Africans in the US are also vastly better educated than the general population and much more likely to have advanced degrees. Overall, Brand South Africa estimates, the net worth of South Africans living in America is around $13-billion.”

Ebrahim said one of the most valuable contributions any Global South could make was to speak well and proudly of the country and to be living proof of the caliber of people South Africa produces.


Source: Department of Home Affairs, Department of International Relations and Cooperation

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