Zimbabweans face deportation from South Africa as special visa terminated – Katzenellenbogen

Approximately 180,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa and their dependents, numbering potentially up to a million people, are facing deportation at the end of June. The country’s Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, has declared the end of the validity of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), which allows those who are eligible for political asylum to stay in South Africa. ZEP holders are now in a difficult position, as they are unable to apply for asylum to remain in South Africa, face uncertainty in returning to Zimbabwe, and face difficulties in obtaining other visas. The Pretoria High Court will hear three separate applications this week seeking to reverse the Minister’s decision on the ZEP. Read more below.

SA leaving Zimbabweans in the lurch

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen 

About 180 000 Zimbabweans and their dependants, who could number as many as a million, will face deportation from South Africa at the end of June. That is when the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, will terminate the validity of a special visa that allows those who may have been eligible for political asylum to stay in the country.

Those who hold the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), are now caught in a bind. They cannot apply for asylum to remain here, are loath to go back to Zimbabwe from which they had to flee, and it is all but impossible for them to obtain other visas.

This week the Pretoria High Court will hear three separate applications to have the Minister’s decision on the ZEP reversed. The separate actions are being brought by the Helen Suzman Foundation, the Zimbabwean Immigration Federation, and a group called African Amity, as well as 29 holders of the special visa.

If these actions fail, ZEP holders would have to leave South Africa by the end of June. If they do return to Zimbabwe, a country whose economy continues to implode, they might find themselves destitute and may be subject to arrest. And if they take their chances and stay here illegally, they may have problems keeping their jobs and accessing public services.

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Not leave South Africa

What is likely is that many will not leave South Africa. They might simply join the already unknown number of Zimbabweans who are illegally in South Africa and manage to dodge or try to bribe the authorities to stay in the country.

The entire episode points to the mess at Home Affairs and its inability to deal with an enormously long visa backlog, the high cost of South Africa’s policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe, and the playing of a cynical political game.

With next year’s national election about a year away, the Home Affairs Department is having to show a tough stance on immigration. The ANC is acutely aware that the issue of immigration could become a point of vulnerability for them in the election campaign. Operation Dudula, the anti-immigration movement which has paraded through the streets, could show its force again, the Economic Freedom Fighters have taken up the issue of foreigners in jobs, and Action SA also wants a crackdown.

The special permit for Zimbabweans was meant to be a way of rapidly dealing with the flood of asylum applications from Zimbabweans, when Harare cracked down on the opposition after the MDC defeated the ruling Zanu-PF party at the polls in 2008. Since then, it has gone through three iterations.

A year after the 2008 Zimbabwe elections, Home Affairs found itself unable to deal with the backlog in asylum applications and came up with the Dispensation for Zimbabweans Project. In 2014, the Dispensation for Zimbabweans project was renewed as the Zimbabwean Special Permit, and then in 2017 the ZEP was introduced.

The big problem for ZEP holders is that it is very difficult for them to convert to another immigration status. One of the conditions of the ZEP is that holders cannot apply for asylum and can only remain in SA if they are issued one of the normal South African visas, which is very difficult. It would have been far more just, had these special visas allowed Zimbabwean asylum seekers to stay in the country while their cases were being considered.

One of the conditions of the special Zimbabwean visas is that its holders cannot apply for a permanent residence visa, even after the expiry of the ZEP at the end of June.

Home Affairs terminated the ZEP on the grounds that this was always a temporary measure, the DHA had a limited budget, and that ZEP holders contributed to South African unemployment. It also says that conditions have improved in Zimbabwe, and the end of the ZEP will alleviate pressure on the asylum system. Whether or not Zimbabweans contribute to high unemployment is debatable, as is the claim that political conditions have improved in the country.

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Political pressure

All the signs are that Home Affairs is under political pressure to reduce the number of Zimbabweans in the country.

The Foundation’s argument in court this week will be along narrow legal grounds. It says the Minister’s termination of the special visa was unlawful because the department did not consult ZEP holders or the South African public. The right to be consulted flows from Section 33 of the Constitution – something that is not reserved for citizens alone. The result was that the Minister was unaware of the impact of the decision on holders of the visa and on South African society.

Clearly, the provision of temporary permits to many Zimbabweans seeking asylum was a means to get rid of the backlog while denying these people permanent residency. It provided a convenience, but with political pressures for a tougher stance on immigration, Home Affairs is now trying to get rid of the problem by abolishing the permit.

All these underhand mechanisms by Home Affairs would probably not be necessary if Pretoria had other policies in place to deal with the mess in Zimbabwe.

The best way of reducing the flow across the Limpopo would be for Zimbabwe to become prosperous and to adhere to democratic norms around elections. Zimbabweans would not then need to cross the border to provide for themselves. Pretoria’s policy of quiet diplomacy has meant it has kept silent on the worsening situation in Zimbabwe for nearly 25 years. This means there is no real pressure on Zimbabwe to reform and for the flow of migrants to decrease. For years South Africa has had to deal with the negative fallout from Zimbabwe.

The net effect of educated Zimbabweans coming to SA is probably positive. Many start their own businesses and employ South Africans. But there are certainly negative effects such as increased crime and pressure on our public services. While Limpopo Health MEC, Phophi Rathuba, was widely criticised for publicly shaming a Zimbabwean hospital patient for taking up her budget, what she said was true. South Africa simply cannot afford to provide healthcare and other public resources to many Zimbabweans.

Read more: Pity poor Zimbabweans, with a food inflation rate of 353%  

Having refused to pressure Zimbabwe to improve conditions so people might actually want to live there, we are now stuck with the consequences. Zimbabweans will continue to flow into South Africa legally and illegally, and there is not much we can do about it. Our borders are porous and people want to escape from a country where they have problems feeding their families.

But we could at least have in place an immigration regime that is well-managed and treats people with a degree of dignity, and does not leave them in the lurch.

This article is republished with permission from Daily Friend

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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