By Sintha Chiumia
South African television programme Carte Blanche investigated the fraught journey to South Africa many Malawians experience. But their hard-hitting figure that “almost one-third of Malawi’s population” live in South Africa is completely off-point.
For some Malawians trying to get to South Africa without travel documents, the journey ends in robbery, sexual assault or even death.
South African investigative journalism show Carte Blanche last year documented these atrocities and the insert was repeated last Sunday.
Advertising the show, Carte Blanche stated on their website (and in a TV promo, according to a reader) that “almost one-third of Malawi’s population lives and works in South Africa.”
Like many other African nationals, Malawians make their way to South Africa for various reasons. But is there evidence that nearly a third of Malawi’s population have left for South Africa?
‘I don’t have a real figure’
The claim originated with the Malawian high commissioner to South Africa, Professor Chrissie Kaponda, who was asked how many Malawians live in South Africa.
“I don’t know,” Kaponda told Carte Blanche. “I don’t have a real figure but I have heard projections like 6 million or 5 million. Actually, we don’t have any reports of how many Malawians are here.”
A Carte Blanche voice-over continued, stating that the figure used by Kaponda represents “almost a third of the country’s entire population of 18 million”.
This figure is more than the most recent estimates of Malawi’s population. Malawi’s National Statistical Office has projected that in 2016 the country’s population would be 16.83 million while the United Nations estimated the population at 17.75 million.
Data shows less than 100,000 Malawians in SA
To start with, if 5 to 6 million Malawians lived in South Africa, it would represent as much as triple the total number of foreign-born migrants currently thought to live in the country.
South Africa’s 2011 Census showed an estimated 2.2 million people living in South Africa were born outside the country. Statistics South Africa’s recent 2016 Community Survey found this figure had dropped to 1.6 million people. However, this decline seems improbable and Stats SA indicated that they would be investigating the matter.
The UN provides a higher estimate of the migrant population in South Africa, at 3.14 million by mid-2015. In a detailed analysis for Africa Check, University of Cape Town demographer Professor Tom Moultrie suggests that based on available data, at best we can assume that there are “between one and three million” foreign-born migrants living in South Africa.
Stats SA and the UN population division on international migration both provide estimates of Malawians living in South Africa that are magnitudes lower than the 5 to 6 million claimed.
The 2011 census indicated that 86,606 people who were born in Malawi lived in South Africa. The latest figure, from the 2016 survey, is 78,796. This is in line with the UN population division’s 2015 estimate of 76,605.
The census and community surveys do not ask whether or not migrants are documented and therefore these figures should include all foreign-born migrants. However, there are suggestions that, given South Africa’s history of xenophobia, foreign-born migrants are increasingly cautious of revealing their origins.
Although concerns have been raised about recent figures and estimates surrounding foreign-born migrants in South Africa, it is plain to see that the total number of Malawi-born migrants living in South Africa does not come remotely close to the millions suggested.
‘A miracle’ if claim were true
Migration data is often inexact as it is “notoriously hard to collect”, Moultrie explained. However, if the number of Malawians living in South Africa did stretch into the millions, experts say there would be other indicators of such a dramatic spike.
“The precise numbers of foreigners in South Africa is up for debate,” Professor Loren Landau from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand told Africa Check. “The even more difficult task of counting people from a particular country is open to further interpretation.”
Still, the difference between the official estimates and the Carte Blanche figure is too big, Landau added.
“It would be a miracle” if the true number of Malawians in South Africa were more than 60 times the available estimates, he said.
Professor of actuarial science at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Actuarial Research, Rob Dorrington, explained: “Unless there is some reason that we are missing Malawians in particular the same would have to be true for other foreign-born people, at least the majority of foreigners.”
The chief director for demography at Stats SA, Diego Iturralde, said similar claims have been about other nationalities but that these statements lack proof.
“It is totally out of the question that there would be 5 to 6 million Malawians in South Africa. Similar suggestions have been made about Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and other country’s residents in South Africa and none of them are accompanied by any robust or credible data,” he told Africa Check.
If there were that many Malawians, or that many foreign-born migrants from any nation, the spike would be reflected in other data, such as annual birth rates, he added.
“Migration is at the best of times a complex thing to measure, and I would advise the public at large to desist from making headline-grabbing claims without substantiating it with data that is robust, credible and has passed the scientific test for rigour,” Iturralde said.
Conclusion: The claim is nowhere near correct
The Malawi high commissioner’s statement to Carte Blanche, that she had “heard projections like 6 million or 5 million” Malawi-born citizens were living in South Africa, is an anecdotal claim. It could and should have easily been checked and debunked by the South African investigative reporting programme.
Although official foreign-born migration estimates are not without problems, figures from organisations like Stats SA and the UN clearly show that the total number of foreign-born migrants living in South Africa is significantly less than that.
In addition, all current data suggests that the Malawi-born population currently living in South Africa does not exceed 100,000 people – a fraction of the incorrect figure beamed into living rooms around the country.