South Africa and Botswana want to limit the number of Zimbabweans in their countries.
Zimbabwe will be able to support any influx of deportees from South Africa and Botswana, according to the minister of home affairs, Kembo Mohadi.
There are indications that the two neighbouring countries might start deporting a large number of undocumented Zimbabweans.
South Africa has introduced stringent immigration laws which will compel 250 000 Zimbabweans who benefited from a special permit programme to return home to reapply for permits from the South African embassy in Harare when the current ones expire at the end of the year.
Mohadi said this week that there had been no official communication between Zimbabwe and South Africa so far over the new laws, which were adopted in May.
Asked if the new rules would negatively affect relations between the two countries, Mohadi said: “The foreign relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa fall under foreign affairs and I will leave it to them to comment on the future of relations between the two countries,” he said.
“However, I have not received any official communication from the South African authorities and I will only be well-placed to communicate a firm position from our side once that has taken place,” Mohadi said. “What I currently know is what I have read in the press.”
Political observers have said South Africa’s reticence to discuss the issue publicly is an indication that the country is unlikely to tone down the stringent conditions of the new laws.
South Africa’s home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, said on Monday this week that he would only speak about the issue next month.
A report released on Tuesday by Statistics South Africa revealed that the greatest number of people granted permanent residence in South Africa are Zimbabweans. In terms of nationality, among the 10 leading African countries, Zimbabwe is the highest with 42.6%. Second-placed was the Democratic Republic of Congo with 12.9%, followed by Nigeria with 10.3%.
Mohadi said the government had a responsibility to accept its own citizens back, should neighbouring countries deport them.
“Are they not Zimbabweans? In the first place, they left Zimbabwe, which is their home, going to South Africa and Botswana, so there is nothing untoward about them coming back home,” he said. “We will be able to support them if they are to return as they are still our people.”
But an economic commentator, Eric Bloch, said the influx of deportees would worsen the living conditions in the country and further strain an already poor government.
“If these deportations happen, they would be very regrettable, as we already have millions of people who are unemployed, and so there is likely to be an increase in poverty and unemployment,” he said.
“From a South African point of view, their decision is understandable as they cannot keep absorbing our people into their economy as this has pushed up their unemployment rate.”
Botswana has followed South Africa’s tough stance and has announced that it will increase the deportation of Zimbabweans who have refugee status.
Ramadeluka Seretse, Botswana’s defence, justice and security minister, was quoted by the Botswana media as saying that the situation in Zimbabwe had improved and the asylum given to scores of refugees could be withdrawn.
Tidimalo Palayi, an official at the ministry of labour and home affairs in Gaborone, did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian seeking clarification on how the government would implement the process and when it would start.
‘Foolhardy’ to close borders
Zimbabweans based in Botswana also said new work permit applications and the renewal of permit applications by Zimbabwean nationals were being rejected and home affairs in Botswana was not giving valid reasons for it, which the Zimbabweans say is aimed at getting rid of them.
A political analyst, Takura Zhangazha, said it would be foolhardy for other neighbouring countries to copy South Africa and close their borders to Zimbabweans.
“On immigration, it is really about the sheer numbers of Zimbabweans that are in South Africa as opposed to anywhere else. In other Southern African countries, Zimbabweans are mostly cross-border traders. So any country that takes a leaf from South Africa would be blowing things out of proportion and perhaps will be seeking to score political points rather than anything else,” Zhangazha said.
Mohadi said that as far as he was concerned the issue of Botswana increasing deportations was nothing new as the country had been doing it on a weekly basis for years.
“Botswana has always been deporting our people. Even if they intensify it, it has always been in place,” Mohadi said.
The size of the Zimbabwean diaspora is largely unknown but estimates from civil society organisations put the number of those in South Africa at as many as three million.
Zimbabweans who fled the economic and political turmoil mostly sought sanctuary in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.