South Africa announced it will end a more than decade-old programme that allowed about 200 000 Zimbabweans to live and work in the country, weeks after a new anti-immigrant party scored spectacular electoral gains.
The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit will lapse at the end of the year and their holders will then need to apply for different kinds of visas to stay or will be deported after a 12-month period, the Cabinet said in a statement on Thursday. There are few other permits they can apply for.
South Africa has a population of about 60 million, about 3 million of whom are migrants, according to the national statistics agency. Many of those are Zimbabweans driven south by two decades of political repression and economic collapse. The majority are undocumented and the ZEP only applies to those who registered at its inception in 2009.
"It’s going to result in a humanitarian disaster," said Sharon Ekambaram, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights in Johannesburg. "It’s a very inhumane decision."
In a municipal vote held on 1 November, ActionSA, a party formed by former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, won 16% of the votes in Johannesburg in its first electoral outing and a large proportion of the ballot in the capital, Pretoria. Mashaba has consistently demanded that undocumented migrants be deported. The ruling African National Congress won less than half of the vote nationally for the first time.
South Africa has been plagued by recurrent bouts of xenophobic violence since at least 2008, with foreigners often accused of taking jobs in a country where a third of the workforce is unemployed.
The announcement may be an attempt by the government to placate voters before national elections in three years, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Africa director for the International Committee of Jurists, said on Twitter.