Harmful rumours about migrants from other African countries get attention on social media in South Africa. One recent claim about the jobs they hold is wildly inflated.
Eskom employs less than 156 Zimbabwean nationals while Vodacom employs less than 71. Of the 1,162,199 employees in South Africa’s government, 3,420 are foreign nationals.
Foreign nationals are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, are not protected by labour laws, and have few rights as workers.
According to an expert, we need to move beyond a fixation on numbers and ask deeper questions
“The level of hate the SA government has for its citizens is not surprising.”
That’s the final sentence in a much copied and pasted message circulating on social media in South Africa in September 2022.
The message – also seen here and here – seems to come from a tweet posted on 3 September, which has attracted thousands of reactions. Its first three sentences claim to give evidence for this “hate”:
People who have migrated to South Africa from Zimbabwe, one of South Africa’s northern neighbours, have for months been targeted by campaigns that accuse them of crime and of taking jobs from locals.
But South Africa’s history of xenophobic hostility – and violence – against migrants from elsewhere on the continent goes back decades.
Eskom is South Africa’s state-owned electricity supplier. Vodacom South Africa is part of the global Vodafone Group of telecoms companies.
South Africa has dozens of national government departments, and dozens more in the governments of its nine provinces.
But does Eskom really employ more than 1,000 Zimbabweans, and Vodacom another 5,000? And do more than 10,000 foreign nationals have jobs in government departments? We did some digging.
What the data can and can’t tell us
It’s difficult to find data on the number of foreign migrants in South Africa.
And more unproven numbers were thrown around after the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, which aims to give undocumented Zimbabweans the chance to regularise their stay in South Africa, was extended in early September.
Estimates of migration into South Africa are often imprecise, for several reasons. The country’s censuses and national surveys do record migrants, but don’t give enough context to estimate their movement over time. And migrants questioned in surveys may not want to say where they were born.
The 2022 census by Zimstat, Zimbabwe’s statistics agency, reportedly found that more than 773,000 of that country’s people had emigrated to South Africa, “largely for employment reasons”. (The data is preliminary.)
Statistics South Africa estimates the total number of foreign nationals in the country to be around 3,95 million.
Figures from the ZEP initiative also offer some clues. ZEP has existed in different forms for 13 years. According to the Department of Home Affairs, the purpose was originally “to give a large number of undocumented Zimbabweans … the opportunity to regularise their stay in South Africa”. Around 245,000 permits were initially issued. Today, an estimated 178,000 people hold a Zimbabwe exemption permit.
The South African government announced in 2021 that the permits would expire at the end of 2022, giving holders a year to apply for a different permit, leave the country, or become undocumented. The deadline has since been extended until the end of June 2023.
Eskom employs over 1,000 Zimbabweans
Eskom is a state-owned company that produces much of the country’s electricity. The latest available employment data indicates that in the 2020/21 financial year, the company had 43,137 employees.
This figure comes from employment equity (EE) reports on Eskom’s three main bodies – Eskom Holdings SOC Limited, Eskom Finance Company and Eskom Rotek Industries.
EE reports are publicly available and submitted by businesses to the Department of Employment and Labour every year. Companies in South Africa are required to report numbers and demographics of their employees in line with the Employment Equity Act.
When added up, the total number of foreign nationals employed by all Eskom bodies is 156. As a percentage of the total number of employees, foreign nationals make up just 0.36% of Eskom’s employees.
The report does not break down the number of foreign nationals by citizenship, so the exact number of Zimbabweans employed by Eskom is not known. But we do know the number would be smaller than 156 – a lot less than the 1,000 claimed in the viral message.
Vodacom employs over 5,000 Zimbabweans
Vodacom is one of South Africa’s largest mobile and data companies. According to the latest available data from Vodacom Group’s employment equity report, as of 2020/21 the company employed 4,991 people in South Africa. Of these, 71 were not South African citizens.
The employment report does not break this number down by nationality. But Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told Africa Check that the company employs “less than 50 people that are Zimbabwean nationals”.
This is in stark contrast to the message, which claims that Vodacom has more than 5,000 Zimbabwean employees. This number is larger than 4,991, the total number of people the company employs in South Africa.
Over 10,000 foreign nationals are employed in South African government departments
Statistics for the number of employees in South Africa’s government can be found in the Commission for Employment Equity’s 2021/22 annual report. According to the report, employees in local, provincial and national government add up to a total of 1,162,199 people. Of these, 3,420 are foreign nationals.
We asked government spokesperson Phumla Williams about the numbers. She said that according to the Department of Public Service and Administration, the total number of foreign nationals in public service at provincial and national government was 1,901.
Taking the larger number of 3,420 across all levels of government, the viral claim overestimates the number by around two thirds.
The African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand conducts research into all forms of migration within and outside South Africa. According to their analysis of data from 2012 to 2017, foreign nationals are less likely to be unemployed than South Africans, which is an unusual situation compared to other countries.
But, as Africa Check has reported before, much of this employment is precarious. Foreign nationals are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, meaning they are not protected by labour laws and have few rights as workers.
Despite this, there is a persistent belief that foreign nationals are coming into the country in droves and getting employment over South Africans. The narrative of immigrants “stealing our jobs” has been reported on extensively by Africa Check and others.
Contrary to this belief, a September 2022 report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said that rather than taking jobs, foreign nationals are more likely to create jobs for South Africans.
Dr Zaheera Jinnah, research associate with the ACMS, told Africa Check it was true that migrants tended to be “disproportionately represented in certain sectors and certain neighbourhoods”. This reinforced the belief that there was an “influx” of people migrating to work in South Africa – even when this may not be reflected in the numbers.
But according to Jinnah, how many migrants work or live in the country may not be the most important aspect to focus on.
“We need to move beyond a fixation on numbers (how many migrants) to ask deeper questions on what migrants are doing in South Africa,” she said.
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