The cost of deporting illegal Zimbabwean immigrants is huge and has prompted calls for South Africa to legitimise their stay.
The South African government spends at least R90-million a year on sending illegal immigrants back to their countries, most to Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans, however, make it back into South Africa within days.
The Zimbabwean government has now complained about the high number of nationals deported by South Africa. This comes against the background of an apparent hardening of attitudes towards refugees from the South African government.
The story of Johannesburg-based illegal immigrant Ndadzoka Pamberi, which is not her real name, is a familiar one.
After spending a week at the Lindela repatriation camp awaiting deportation, Pamberi was taken by train to Musina, then across the border into Zimbabwe in a police truck.
While in custody at Lindela, she operated a makeshift hair salon, plaiting female immigration officers' hair for a fee. That money would later pay for her transportation back to Johannesburg from Beit Bridge.
"When you get to the Zimbabwean side, they don't arrest you because you didn't commit any crime in that country," she said. "They let you free and you go wherever you want."
Pamberi planned her return to Johannesburg as soon as the South African police handed her back to her country's officials.
"By 4pm I hit the road, walking in the bush for about two hours until it got dark and we started walking by the side of the road," she said.
She made it back to Johannesburg on the same day.
Malayishas, Zimbabwean nationals who transport fellow citizens' groceries and other parcels from South Africa to Zimbabwe, provided transport back to Johannesburg, said Pamberi. "When you see a car that flashes its lights twice you run to that car because you know that's the one that's safe to use," she explained.
She went on to spend eight more years in South Africa illegally, paying her way out of arrest several times.
Hers is the story of many Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa and defying efforts to send them back home.
Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor admitted in January that it was a challenge to keep deporting illegal immigrants, but said there was no easy solution to the problem.
The Zimbabwean government says South Africa deported 23150 illegal Zimbabweans in the four months to April 30 this year, but Pandor told the Mail & Guardian that 11133 Zimbabweans were deported between January and March.
Pandor said the cost of deporting Zimbabwean nationals was about R558 a person and it cost R99 a day to accommodate one illegal foreign national at the Lindela repatriation camp.
If the 11133 deported Zimbabweans spent one night at Lindela, it means the government has already spent at least R7.3-million in the first three months of the year on deportations.
Migrant rights organisations say South Africa's immigration policy of deportation is inefficient and a waste of money. In a report that focused on illegal detentions of migrants, the University of the Witwatersrand's African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) found that, in a 23-month period during 2009 and 2010, home affairs spent R4.7-million defending cases that challenged the detentions.
In the report, released in September last year, the ACMS acknowledged that the "true costs are likely to be higher". The centre's analysis was restricted to costs it could confirm per case.
Dr Roni Amit, the author of the report, told the M&G the centre believed deportation did not work. "One of the things we have suggested is providing mechanisms for lower-skilled migrants to legally enter the country so that they are not forced to enter illegally and/or overwhelm the asylum system."
In addition to this, in 2009, the ACMS found that the South African Police Service in Gauteng spends more than R362.5-million a year on detecting, detaining and transferring illegal migrants to Lindela.
In a presentation to Parliament's portfolio committee on home affairs in February, the ACMS expressed concern that the government appears to be heading towards what the centre called "securitisation of migration management", which entailed heightening border controls, restricting entry and increasing detention and deportation.
Pandor dismissed the fears, saying South Africa had a "very progressive refugee and immigration law that matches with the best in the world".
Zimbabwe wants South Africa to regularise the stay of illegal immigrants, in addition to the 275762 documents already granted to legalise stays.
Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi said his country would make another attempt to convince South Africa to reopen the Zimbabwe documentation process.
But Pandor said South Africa would not reopen the Zimbabwe dispensation project.
Asked why the Zimbabwean government was encouraging its citizens to stay in South Africa, Mohadi said: "We've had a good education system and most Zimbabweans are literate and skilled. Our economy cannot absorb all of them."
His home affairs co-minister, Theresa Makone, supports the call for South Africa to regularise more Zimbabweans. "It's South Africa's right to deport people who are not documented, but it does not work in the interest of our people because of the economic hardships they face."
She said many Zimbabweans did not heed the call to legalise their stay because they suspected the process was a plan to identify them for deportation. "We have a large pool of people who were on the sidelines," she said. "We'd really appreciate if the South African government can give us a small window for another documentation process."
Langton Miriyoga, co-ordinator of refugee rights group People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, said the fact that deportees found their way back into South Africa "indicates that [the] government's deportation programme is going in circles, not resolving the problem".
Miriyoga said promoting voluntary return and repatriation by offering support to those who wanted to go home and documenting illegal immigrants would ensure "the costs of deportation are minimised".