- People who hold the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit are worried that they will not qualify for any of the "mainstream" visas that they now have to apply for.
- If they don't fall into any of the very specific visa categories, they have to return to Zimbabwe, displacing an entire generation of children who have never set foot there.
- Activists warn that this is going to create chaos in a country already reeling from the othering and vigilantism directed at Zimbabwean expatriates.
Zimbabwean expatriates are scrambling to apply for a visa to continue living in South Africa after their Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEP) expired in December.
If they are unsuccessful, in some cases, an entire generation of children will be forced to relocate with their parents to a country they may never even have visited.
However, according to Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza, the agent VFS Global has only received 2 301 visa applications and 3 014 waiver applications from the exemption holders. A special team at the department is still working through these for final approval.
According to the records of the department, a total number of 178 412 Zimbabwean nationals were granted exemptions.
"It must however be noted that some of them did not renew their permits, and as such they lapsed. While others either migrated to other visas or left the country," said Qoza.
In November 2021, the department announced that the ZEP would not be extended again, and all holders of this special permit had until 31 December 2021 to apply for a visa to stay in South Africa.
The ZEP cancellation and requirement to apply for a new visa aligns with the department's review of all visas issued from as far back as 2004, but Zimbabweans are the only ones who have to reapply for a visa at the moment.
This appears to contradict the White Paper on International Migration, which painstakingly sets out the democratic South African government's commitment to undo the apartheid-era's preference for white immigrants, and restricting permits to black migrants who were contributing to the country's cheap labour pool of mine and farm workers.
Zimbabwean nationals arrived in a larger group than usual in South Africa around 2008, during a period of hyperinflation, food shortages, empty government coffers, and severe political uncertainty back home.
A government of national unity was eventually formed in 2009 between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe. Still, trust issues often saw it hit the rocks. So many in the country who had had enough of the constant anxiety and hardship, decided to leave.
After borders were declared during the various colonial wars, a long history began of miners, farmers and cross-border traders coming to South Africa.
Around 40 000 white "Rhodesians" who did not want to live under a black government, known as "when wes", settled in South Africa after 1980, with few residency and work problems.
The two countries also have a shared recent history of supporting each other during the struggle against colonialism and the white governments that discriminated against black people. South Africa was heavily criticised for not speaking out on complaints of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
However, after the sudden swell of people applying for asylum or refugee status during the political and economic turmoil, in April 2009, Cabinet created the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project.
In an update in 2014, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, said this was a "significant gesture of support and solidarity" with Zimbabweans.
During the project, he said a total of 295 000 Zimbabweans had applied for the permit, and just over 245 000 had been issued. Those who were refused either had a criminal record, lacked a passport, or did not fulfil other requirements. The permit gave the holder the same rights as South Africans, except voting rights. In many cases, recipients handed in their asylum permits.
The introduction of the permit coincided with a horrific wave of xenophobia in South Africa. However, the government dismissed accusations of xenophobia, saying the attacks on people and shops were by "criminals''.
But anti-Zimbabwean sentiment appears to have resurfaced again, with Zimbabweans being accused of taking jobs that South Africans could be doing.
The permit allows Zimbabweans to work in South Africa, and has offered a level of protection against harassment, but now there are worries that not qualifying for a visa could lead to great upheaval, in spite of years of working in and contributing to SA's economy.
The invitation to apply for a visa may sound positive to an outsider, but to Zimbabweans trying to get one, it is a nightmare, with horrifying consequences for those who fail.
Lawyer Simba Chitango told News24:
Last year Chitango unsuccessfully tried to get home affairs to cancel the reapplication process.
He is preparing a similar court application again on the grounds that Zimbabweans who have lived here for most of their working lives should, by now, have the right to have their ZEPs converted to permanent residence.
He explained that ZEP holders must choose from different specific visa categories. These include business, study, spousal, and work visas. Applicants must find one that best suits their situation.
However, to get a work visa, the applicant must prove they are filling a critical skill post and that their employer cannot find an equally qualified South African for the job.
Published on the department's website, the critical skills list sets out the highly specialised jobs that meet the criteria for this visa category. Many are in the sciences, such as astrophysicists, making it difficult for general workers to meet the requirements.
"Not everybody is a rocket scientist," said Chitango.
The Helen Suzman Foundation also intends going to court to challenge the sudden decision to terminate the permits at the end of the year.
"They will be put to a desperate choice: to remain in South Africa as undocumented migrants with all the vulnerability that attaches to such status or return to a Zimbabwe that, to all intents and purposes, is unchanged from the country they fled. There are thousands of children who have been born in South Africa to ZEP holders during this time who have never even visited their parents’ country of origin."It is not the position of HSF that those migrants who are in South Africa unlawfully should be entitled to remain, nor even that the ZEP must continue in perpetuity. Rather, our position is that those who have scrupulously observed South Africa’s laws in order to live and work here under the ZEP cannot have such permits terminated without fair process, good reason and a meaningful opportunity to regularise their status."
Mercy Dube, a volunteer with Global South Against Xenophobia, said the updated critical skills list alone was going to exclude almost all of the ZEP holders who apply.
"It is done deliberately so that Zimbabwe nationals will be displaced," she said.
Many people don't have critical skills because they are waiters, domestic workers, general workers.
A critical skills applicant must also supply a letter from the Department of Labour, confirming that they are providing the critical skill. The employer must also advertise the reason for hiring a foreign national for that job.
Dube said that despite DHA's instructions to banks and financial institutions not to freeze accounts or withhold services during the grace period, this was not always adhered to.
She said that, at floor level, clerks said they could not get a replacement bank card if it was lost or stolen, because their ZEP had expired, and that the same was sometimes experienced by people renewing their driver's licences.
Dube added that there was a perception that the study visa was an easy "in", but it came with a host of financial commitments - fees paid up in full, checks that classes are attended, and proof of medical aid cover.
Immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg wrote in a column in the Mail & Guardian in 2019 that the Department of Home Affairs' business permit section was so inefficient that it couldn't support the commitment by President Cyril Ramaphosa that "South Africa is open for business".
According to Eisenberg, it is no better in 2022. And, it has become even worse for small business owners.
"They are screwed," he said.
To qualify for the business visa, the applicant had to prove a R5-million investment in South Africa, something that was impossible for a small shop owner or a small business owner like a hairdresser, Eisenberg said.
They could apply for a waiver, but this had to be personally signed off by the minister of home affairs, and experience had shown that it took a minimum of one year to be approved.
"Come 1 January 2023, 150 000 people are going to be subjected to leaving South Africa for Zimbabwe. With nobody waiting on the other side," warned Eisenberg.
Recognising that its visa services were severely backlogged, the department appointed private company VFS Global Services to deal with the visa applications in 2014, and it was only possible to apply for a visa through them, although DHA had the final say on whether it was granted.
The costs associated with the application are also high.
According to Qoza, the VFS service fee is R1 550, and the DHA cost between R425 or R1 520-00 depending on the category of the visa.
Sources say there are also hidden costs: an average R850 for a radiography report to rule out contagious diseases, the cost of a general health report, the cost of police clearance, and between R3000 to R4000 to get a Zimbabwe passport issued for the application if necessary.
According to DHA statements, VFS do this at no charge to the overwhelmed DHA.
Eisenberg describes VFS as a "professional world-class five-star service," which stepped in at a time when almost 50% of visa applications simply went missing at home affairs.
"Home affairs is simply incapable of supply chain control from the front office to the back office. And they are always trying to reinvent themselves," he said.
Activist against xenophobia Roshila Nair becomes increasingly angry as she talks about the visa process for ZEP holders.
Nair said she was not surprised that so few applications had been received for the visas.
She said Zimbabweans were already subjected to spot checks at their workplaces, harassment by Operation Dudula and PutSouthAfricaFirst activists, and were constantly hazed on social media, with this sometimes even supported by prominent figures and some police officers.
Many were fearful and traumatised by vigilante attacks and othering, especially after the murder of Elvis Nyathi in Diepsloot by vigilantes.
"It needs a diplomatic resolution from the state. At first it is the ZEP, and tomorrow it is going to be another group."
Edward Muchatuta, the national co-ordinator of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit Association, said the government had made ZEP holders think they would be all be eligible for the "mainstream" visas that fall under the Immigration Act.
"This is a total lie. They knew people wouldn't qualify for a mainstream permit."
He warned that people now realised that they would probably not qualify for any category of visa and might opt to continue living in South Africa without one, or any protective documentation.
He is particularly worried about the fate of the children of adults who could be deported to Zimbabwe.
According the Qoza, as matters stand, the validity of the exemptions has been extended until 31 December 2022, including those of children.
"Once the applicant has been issued with one or other visa, he or she will continue to proceed to regularise the legal status of the children," he explained.
Muchatuta said ZEP holders were on edge over their children's education, particularly if they were rejected for a visa.
They would most likely fail their finals and battle to go to tertiary education or find work.
"This will put them on the streets."
Also a truck driver, Muchatuta said the systemic discrimination against Zimbabweans in crucial truck driving networks was already at a crisis point.
During a blockade of the N3 on Thursday, he said the government only stepped in if South Africans were at risk of attack.
"If it were migrants attacking locals, this would have been attended to," he said.
He said he was extremely concerned about the lack of communication from the Zimbabwean government over what arrangements, if any, had been made to help resettle returning Zimbabweans and was trying to get information from the Zimbabwean government about the people he is helping.
He said the average price of a small plot was about $5 000, which most returning Zimbabweans would not have.
"How can a domestic worker who earned R2 500 a month afford it?" he asked.
"This is going to cause chaos in South Africa," he said.
The government of Zimbabwe is encouraging its nationals in South Africa under the ZEP to apply for other permits available if they want to stay in the country.
In an interview with News24, Livit Mugejo, Zimbabwe's foreign affairs and international trade spokesperson, said: "Zimbabwe recognises and respects the sovereign decision of the government of South Africa."
A decision was taken by the South African government that when the permits expire in December this year, those who don't have other permits to stay in the country would have to go back to Zimbabwe.
Those who wish to stay would have to do so under new requirements.
"Immigration laws are made by the receiving government. As such, our government is encouraging the Zimbabweans in South Africa to meet the new requirements and apply for the other permits.
"Zimbabweans are still free to stay, study and do business in South Africa as long as they secure alternative visa permits," he said.
Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in SA, Nqabutho Nicholas Mabhena, said they were waiting for the South African government to amend the Immigration Act.
"We don't know what the final amendment will be like. We are not very sure if the proposals contained in the wide pact on international migration as gazetted in 2017 will be carried forward. So, on our part it's a wait and see on how South Africa is going to proceed," he said.
At the time the ZDP permits were introduced, almost a million Zimbabweans were estimated to be living and working in South Africa.
With the expiry of the permits, Mugejo reminded Zimbabweans that they would be treated like any other foreigner in SA.
"Zimbabweans are now being treated just like any other foreign nationals who are living in SA and are, therefore, required to have permits that other foreign nationals similarly obtained," he said.Zimbabwe's ambassador to South Africa, David Hamadziripi, told News24 that government officials had met with their South African counterparts in May to allow for minimal disruption of the lives of Zimbabweans as the permits expire.
"We have been engaged in talks with SA so that we can communicate the right information to our people, because without adequate knowledge, their lives would be disrupted largely because of confusion," he said.
He added that the Zimbabwean government had put in place mechanisms to assist those who already wanted to return home.
In the meantime, the holders of Lesotho Extension Permits would also have to go through the same process when their permits expired at the end of December 2023.