Zim's refugees' race against time

By Drum Digital
08 December 2010

HUDDLED figures sleep on pavements in the early hours of the morning and long queues snake around the block as desperate people, often with exhausted toddlers and babies in tow, do their best to negotiate their way through the nightmare of bureaucracy at Home Affairs’ offices.

They all have a common goal: getting the documentation that will allow them to stay in South Africa legally – and right now the deadline for thousands of frantic Zimbabweans is looming ominously.

They have until 31 December to get SA residency permits, and across the country Home Affairs offices are being besieged. Pretoria has warned it will show no leniency: illegal foreign nationals will be deported once the deadline lapses. As the days march relentlessly on toward the end of the month, we visit some of the offices to find out how the people are coping – and unearth stories that make your heart ache.

One person trying to get legal is Natasha Mazonde, a master’s graduate from Wits University, who fell into the clutches of an unscrupulous “agent” who promised to speed up her application for an exceptional work skills permit.

She was approached three months ago by a smooth-talking “Home Affairs agent” who introduced himself as Gladwin. “He promised he would sort out my work permit for R10 000,” she tells us. “He said I should give him a copy of my CV, certified copies of my qualifications and my original passport.”

Natasha obliged – she had a good job offer with a multinational company and was desperate to sort out her residence in time to take it up. She was to earn R12 000 a month and had one month to organise her work permit.

“Gladwin was going to speed up a process that normally takes three to five months,” she says. She paid him R6 000 in cash – but three months later he’d failed to deliver anything and her potential employer withdrew the job offer.

“I called him, but he told me my passport had been misplaced. Only after I threatened to report him to the police did he give it back,” she says.

Adding to her woes is that her passport was copied and a Zimbabwean woman living in Vereeniging has been using her passport number. She’d been sent from pillar to post by Home Affairs officials at the Harrison Street office in Joburg while trying to sort out her status. She’s clearly at the end of her tether – her eyes are red and her face puffy from weeping and after a long walk in the sun her feet are sore and blistered.

“I feel like a fool,” she says bitterly. “I’m an academic but I was taken for a ride. It was my dream to work in Joburg but I feel like the odds are stacked against me.” WE’VE been queuing outside the Harrison Street offices for three hours now. It’s a grim place: paint is peeling from the walls and the urine fumes are overwhelming. And everywhere there are people, people, people. It’s the same at the other places we’ve been to – the Soweto and Langlaagte Home Affairs offices as well as the Zimbabwe consulate in downtown Joburg.

Read the full article in DRUM of 16 December 2010

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