6 000 or 12 000? How many foreigners are locked up in SA prisons?

Last week, on Tuesday, Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo mentioned during a media briefing the number of foreigners imprisoned across the country.

During the briefing Mahlobo talked about overcrowding in South African prisons, which stands at 132.7% according to official stats from the World Prison Brief, and exploring the possibility of deporting foreign nationals who are in various types of correctional centres to have them serve their terms in their respective home countries.

While he didn’t delve into the possibility and whether or not it could actually work, is another story altogether.

When asked how many foreign prisoners there are, Mahlobo put this number at 6 440. But, according to the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, whose portfolio includes prisons, this number is almost double.

In a Parliamentary reply sent to Freedom Front Plus (FF+) MP, Pieter Groenewald, Masutha stated that South Africa’s foreign prison population is 11 842 foreign nationals.

In total, there are 158 111 prisoners in 243 centres across the country, including locals and foreigners. The number of foreign prisoners represents 7.4% of the total prison population.

Below is a chart detailing two of the most serious crimes, murder and rape, and the status of incarceration of foreign nationals for the crimes:

Zimbabweans and Mozambicans make up the bulk of the prisoners either awaiting trial or already serving time for murder. According to Minister Masutha, 448 Zimbabweans are either currently imprisoned or awaiting trial for murder while 311 Mozambicans imprisoned or awaiting trial for the same crime.

More Mozambicans (213) are behind bars for rape than Zimbabweans (186).

Ananias Mathe was perhaps the most notorious foreign prisoner incarcerated in South Africa. Originally from Mozambique, Mathe was arrested and tried for a slew of offences including rape and robbery committed in the late 90s early 2000s.

He became even more notorious when he successfully escaped from a high security C-Max prison in 2006, using petroleum jelly, according to reports. Later over the years, Mathe unsuccessfully attempted to escape four more times.

Mathe died in a hospital prison in December 2016 from complications related to his stomach.

[This story was written as’s official entry into the Africa Check Fact Checking Awards for 2017]

[Source: World Prison Brief, Department of Justice and Correctional Services. Image – CC Jacklee]


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