Deadline approaches for Zimbabweans

2010-12-16 08:59

A steady rain made the wait particularly miserable for Zimbabwean immigrants crowded outside a South African immigration office, trying to legalise their status before a feared wave of deportation.

As many as 3 million Zimbabweans are believed to be living and working in South Africa after fleeing entwined economic collapse and a political crisis in their homeland.

South African authorities, who had allowed many to stay without even passports, announced the crackdown in September, saying that those who did not apply for legal status before December 31 would have to go home.

That has led to crowds at immigration offices across South Africa yesterday, with some Zimbabweans lining up for several days before even getting in the door to apply for work or study permits.

Human rights groups complained that four months was insufficient and that bureaucrats in Zimbabwe and South Africa were unprepared for the large numbers of applicants.

“Just being legal, it would change my life. I would be more comfortable,” said Frank Nkathazo, a 37-year-old gardener who was waiting to submit his application yesterday with little hope of reaching the doors before they closed at 4pm.

Zimbabweans make up the largest immigrant group in South Africa. Rights groups say legalising Zimbabweans would ensure they pay taxes and that their children go to school so that they can grow up to contribute to the economy of their adopted country, echoing arguments in immigration debates in the United States and Europe.

The decision to document Zimbabweans is “very worthwhile,” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of the Johannesburg offices of Lawyers for Human Rights, but she stressed that the deadline should be extended.

Immigration minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said deportations would not start until all applications are processed, acknowledging that could take some time. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, she said she could not say when deportations would begin.

Early last year, South Africa announced Zimbabweans could travel here on a free 90-day visitor’s permit and apply to do casual work during their stay.

It was the end of that “special dispensation” that was announced in September, with South African officials citing improved economic and political conditions in Zimbabwe.

Nkathazo, the gardener from Plumtree in western Zimbabwe, stood under his umbrella outside a handsome concrete and brick office tower on the edge of downtown Johannesburg, clutching a purple plastic folder stuffed with his ne

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