Temporary labour migration to South Africa has long been a feature of Rhodesian and then Zimbabwean society. A 2002 survey by the Southern African Migration Project show that almost 25% of adult Zimbabweans' parents or grandparents had worked in South Africa at some point in their lives. However, permanent emigration is a relatively new phenomenon. There have been two major waves of emigration from Zimbabwe. The first was that of whites in Zimbabwe who left the country soon after the Lancaster House Agreement ended the Zimbabwe Rhodesia government; the second, still ongoing, was that of black Zimbabweans beginning in the 1990s. In both cases, South Africa was again their primary destination. From 1994 onwards, the South African government displayed increasing hostility to skilled immigration from the rest of Africa. However, this has not served to limit the number of immigrants; Zimbabwean migration to South Africa since 2000 has been described as the "largest concentrated flow" in the country's history. Migrants previously consisted of young people arriving alone to look for work, but since 2000 have increasingly shifted towards women, children, and the elderly who are not able to work and require humanitarian assistance.
A large proportion of the migrants are irregular; they typically pay R200 to people smugglers to take them across the Limpopo River at night and coordinate with taxi drivers who transport the migrants to Johannesburg and watch for the approach of police or soldiers.
Estimates of the number of Zimbabwean migrants to South Africa since 2000 range from one to five million. Exact figures are difficult to obtain due to the large proportion of undocumented migrants. There was some return migration to Zimbabwe as a result of xenophobic violence in the 2008 riots.Most reside in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and North West, with a large concentration in the more economically-advanced urban areas of Gauteng.