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South Africa’s process on the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit raises fundamental concerns for those involved

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Ngqabutho Mabhena

The Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEP), which the South African cabinet announced on November 25, 2021, that it will not renew should be understood in the broader context of what one would call ‘The Migration Question’.

As a point of departure, migration is a global phenomenal that requires proper management. A failure to do so can create serious problems for the host government(s) and migrants themselves.

Francesco Castelli writing for ‘Journal of Travel Medicine, volume 25, issue 1 , 2018’ explained the reasons for people to migrate , ”among the ‘micro factors’, the inadequate human and economic development of the origin country, demographic increase and urbanisation, wars and dictatorships, social factors and environmental changes are the major contributions to migration. These are the main drivers of forced migration, both international and internal.” (Drivers of migration: why do people move?)

In its paper titled ‘International Migrants Day’ published on December 18, 2021, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said “approximately 281 million people were international migrants in 2020, representing 3.6 percent of the global population”.

The Migration Policy Institute on November 18, 2021, published an article by Khangelani Moyo titled ‘South Africa Reckons with Its Status as a Top Immigration Destination, Apartheid History, and Economic Challenges’ saying that South Africa is home to 2.9 million immigrants who account for about 5 percent of the “overall population of 60 million people”. This though does not take into account undocumented migrants.

Anthony Kaziboni in an article written on May 31, 2022 argues that, under apartheid, blacks were not treated as “citizens”, they were governed by Immigrants Regulation Act no 22 of 1913 that “… restricted the immigration into the Union, but also prohibited people from moving freely between the provinces inside the Union”.

The 1913 Immigration Act gave the minister discretion to allow entry to certain groups of people, who would otherwise be declared prohibited immigrants, such as illiterate European unskilled domestic and agricultural workers and skilled artisans. These were also exempt from meeting the conditions laid out in the Act unlike their non-European or non-white counterparts. European migrants under apartheid were given virtually free access to the country as the government wanted to build up the white population.

The British government has taken a racial view on migrants, it has opened its doors to white migrants from Ukraine while it resolved to send other migrants (read black) to Rwanda. Journalist Charley Adams reported on May 28, 2022 that “more than 60 000 people fleeing Ukraine have arrived in the UK” (BBC News).

On September 19, 2010, then South African Home Affairs Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said: “The South African government appeals to Zimbabwean nationals resident in South Africa to take up the offer to regularise their stay in South Africa beginning tomorrow Monday 20 September.”

She went on: “This process is aimed at ensuring you comply with South Africa’s immigration laws, lead normal lives while ending your misery of living under constant fear of deportation.

“Simultaneously, we reiterate our commitment to extending amnesty to all those who posses fraudulent South African identify documents on condition they hand them back to Home Affairs regional offices in the country.”

This message by the then Minister of Home Affairs Dr Dlamini Zuma brought relief to thousands of Zimbabweans, who wanted to regularise their stay in South Africa under the South African immigration laws.

The African Diaspora Forum (ADF) is concerned that in the current public discourse over the future of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, the issue of “regularise your stay under immigration laws” once more takes centre stage.

The holders of ZEP understood in 2010 that they needed to take up the offer by government to regularise their stay. Those of low skill suddenly realise that, come January 1, 2023, they might fall foul of the immigration laws as they do not qualify based on the requirements for one to move to other main stream visas as directed by cabinet.

Dr Nkosazana Zuma concluded by saying: “We are convinced that the majority of Zimbabwean nationals residents in South Africa wish to comply with South Africa’s immigration laws and would want to take up the government offer arrived at through bilateral agreement with the Zimbabwean government, to lead normal lives in the country.”

Indeed, 245 000 permits were issued after 295 000 had submitted applications, those who did not receive permits failed to produce Zimbabwean passports or permits disappeared without reaching the applicants.

What is not clear to us as ADF is whether there was proper consultation with the Zimbabwean government not to renew the ZEP given that the 2010 amnesty was “arrived at through bilateral agreement with the Zimbabwean government”.

On November 25, 2021, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele announced that the cabinet had decided not to renew the permits instead, granting a 12 month grace period for holders of ZEP to move to other visas as provided for under the immigration act. In 2010, then Minister of Home Affairs Dr Dlamini Zuma had said that the special permits were issued under the immigration act.

In an article written on November 25, 2021 for GroundUp, Tariri Washinyira says: “Back in October 2019, Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi told GroundUp that the three special permits that were issued to legalise the status of nationals from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Angola already living in South Africa, would be renewed. At the time the minister said they can’t stop renewing special permits if the problems that led to those permits are not yet resolved. But he also said that permits can’t automatically be renewed by the department, it needed cabinet.”

The ADF calls on the South African cabinet to review its decision over non renewal of ZEP as conditions they were issued under have not changed. The ADF further respects the decision by the Helen Suzman Foundation and others to go to court but will continue to engage government and other stakeholders.

In 2016, the ADF participated in the public hearings when the Department of Home Affairs was reviewing the 1999 White Paper On International Migration which was deemed to be Eurocentric.

Even though the ADF is not pleased with the 2017 gazetted White Paper On International Migration when it comes to management of refuges and asylum seekers, it sees it as progressive on people of low skill within the SADC region.

The majority of ZEP holders fall in the category of low skill, which the 2017 White Paper proposed to document.

Mabhena is the executive director of the African Diaspora Forum and chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community Association of South Africa.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.