Zimbabweans and the ZEP

In 2009 South Africa introduced the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), which allowed Zimbabweans to live and work in South Africa. The ZEP (originally, the Zimbabwe Special Dispensation Permit, ZSP) was issued after a call to any Zimbabweans in the country, whether legally or illegally, to come forward and regularise their stay: 250 000 came forward. 

Not all were illegally in the country; some were on other short-term permits that required them to leave South Africa every 30, 60 or 180 days. The ZEP therefore made more sense, and so they took it as a better alternative to avoid the huge expense of regular trips to Zimbabwe which could cost up to R2 000 a month. 

There were three classes of permits issued: one for work, one for business and one for study. Work permits allowed Zimbabweans to seek employment without going through a rigorous process of eliminating alternative candidates. The business permit allowed Zimbabweans to set up businesses without being required to first invest R5-million in South Africa, and the study permit was just that; a permit that allowed Zimbabweans to live and study in South Africa until the end of their studies. 

It is reported by different official and non-official sources that there are anywhere between  one million and five million Zimbabweans in South Africa. Given that number, and given that only 250 000 were documented under the ZEP, it therefore follows that at least 750 000 Zimbabweans in South Africa are undocumented and illegally in the country. Being undocumented, they do not have bank accounts, and cannot get regular employment and cannot therefore contribute formally. They are, for all intents and purposes undocumented and untraceable. 

This, in stark contrast with the 250 000 who are legal, presumably law-abiding, compliant and paying their due taxes … arguably the “model foreigners” everyone says South Africa wants! 

Political lambs for slaughter? 

In November 2021, the ruling ANC party lost votes in key constituencies across the country. The losses were, by and large, to parties whose refrain and ceaseless exhortation was to “get rid of foreigners”. That slogan seemed to find an ear in an increasingly agitated populace that has since given birth to Operation Dudula, a more aggressive radical group that is teetering on taking matters into its own hands to chase out Zimbabwean men and women based on their ability to answer questions in Venda, Zulu or Tsonga. 

When the mob is at your door baying for blood and demanding that you let them have the visitor hiding in your home so they may do with him as they please, you have two choices; either hold on to your principles and choose to protect the visitor… or look the other way, suffocate your conscience and throw the visitor to the mob. 

It is no surprise, and as mentioned earlier, perhaps even forgivable, that when the ANC saw the anti-foreigner trend getting traction, the most obvious choice was to sing the same anti-foreigner tune. 

With the 2024 elections approaching no sane politician would refuse to sing the “No more foreigners in South Africa” anthem: votes require a sacrifice. It is worth noting that the word “illegal” is often added to statements as an afterthought. 

Under pressure, the ANC, which had for many years sheltered Zimbabweans, decided to change its stance: No more would it shelter them. 

The Zimbabweans it had sheltered, ostensibly, as a “thank you” for sheltering and supporting South Africans during apartheid and being bombed in Harare in retaliation by the white regime of South Africa, would no longer be welcome. All ZEP permits will not be renewed after 31 December 2022. 

The ANC, justifiably, comes before all other concerns, and certainly before Zimbabweans. All understandable! One can forgive the ANC’s powers that be for choosing a strategy that will, for them, hopefully lead to victory, or at the very least, survival in 2024. We all have to make decisions that see us come out at the top, after all. 

Legal vs Illegal immigrants 

Now, with the decision to cast out foreigners made, the ANC identified the 250 000 Zimbabweans who were in the country legally and marked them for expulsion: the sacrificial lambs. These are the documented immigrants. The ones Operation Dudula says are welcome. The ones the government of South Africa says are welcome. The self-same migrants who are paying taxes, abiding by the precepts of the law with clean police records and respecting all the requirements placed upon them by the government of South Africa. These are the Zimbabweans the ANC government identified as no longer desirable and due to be chased out in December. 

It would not be politically correct to just round them up from their registered addresses which they willingly submitted during registration, and toss them over the border. There had to be a seemingly fair process to remove them. So, every one of the 250 000 Zimbabweans (or at least of those still alive, or still in the country) has to apply for “mainstream permits”, permits that require that, for a business permit, they must have R5-million … who has R5-million, really, who? For a work permit one needs a degree or diploma and must be in a critical skills sector where there are not enough skilled South Africans. 

The conditions are virtually unattainable — that is why the ZEP was introduced in the first place … as a lenient accommodation! Not all of the legal foreigners have a degree and most certainly none of them have R5-million under the bed! This means virtually all of them will fail to qualify for an alternative permit. 

On 31 December 2022 all 250 000 legal Zimbabweans become undocumented and illegal … not by choice, not because they suddenly decided to be criminals … but because it is no longer politically wise to allow them to stay.

Fair enough, the rights of foreigners cannot trump South African needs, but here is the question: If you are punishing the Zimbabwean foreigners who have been good and respectful of South Africa’s laws, what message are you sending to illegal immigrants? 

You are literally punishing the law-abiding migrants for the sins of the illegal immigrants! For having regularised their stay and heeding your call! 

After the dust settles the illegal immigrants will still be in South Africa and the immigrants who respected South African law will have been chased out! 

A plea for reconsideration 

One would hope some form of review would be done on a case-by-case basis to ascertain what value, if any, an immigrant is bringing to the South African table. This writer being case in point. I have no degree, but being smart and through grit and determination and despite coming from a poor background, I taught myself software engineering. With that self-taught skill I have been able to help several South African companies achieve amazing results and employ many South Africans. I continue to learn and grow as technology evolves. 

I perform at the same level, or better, than graduates and currently work for one of South Africa’s leading e-commerce platforms as head of software development. I neither have the R5-million to apply for a business permit, nor the degree to apply for a work permit despite more than 12 years of experience working with and even training graduates! 

In December I will have to resign from my permanent job, close my bank accounts and leave the country. It is not by choice. 

There are good, and innocent people involved 

I am here legally. I have a clean police record and, if it matters, a clean medical record! I pay my taxes dutifully, and given the size of my tax bill, I contribute greatly to feeding and housing poor South African families. 

Using my self-taught, “undegreed” IT skills, I have founded a startup that now employs South Africans. It is small, admittedly, like all startups in their infancy, but nevertheless it employs and pays, on time, a couple of young South Africans who will be jobless if it fails. It will fail if I have to leave. 

I would wager there are more South Africans in similar situations who will be affected by the departure of other Zimbabweans. 

I won’t have R5-million in December 2022, so the writing is on the wall for those young South Africans who look to me for their pay each month too. They will be back on the street, jobless this Christmas … unless a miracle happens. 

Beyond the South Africans who count on me, beyond my own employer who will lose my considerable skills and experience, beyond myself, my own dreams and my own needs, I have a wife who has her own hopes. But beyond even her, I have kids. Kids who were born in South Africa and have only just started school. They have never known any other home but South Africa. They will have to leave their school, friends, teachers and the only home they know. 

My son is on the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder spectrum and the very idea that he will find a school that can help him in Zimbabwe is laughably depressing. This all spells doom and gloom for him as much as for me and my wife. 

We will have to start life all over again from scratch having left Zimbabwe with nothing, and find a means of survival in a country with no market for our skills. It will be worse for our children. 

This payback hurts the good 

The appreciation we get, as law abiding Zimbabweans who honoured the call to go on the ZEP permit and be legally documented is that in December 2022 we must cease making a living and go back to a country that is now little more than a mound of earth thanks to misrule and mismanagement. Our skills are useless there and have no market. Those who founded businesses will have to shut down and let staff go. Those with jobs must resign. 

It gets worse; as of 31 December, bonds, car loans and even medical aid, life policies and more will be lost as bank accounts are frozen, making it impossible to transact. While South Africa has every right to just swipe left and rid itself of migrants — perhaps it is the moral question that needs to be asked. 

This writer would appeal to the ANC, the ruling party or the powers that be to consider a mitigatory approach where migrants are perhaps vetted, one by one, not with blanket, paper-based and anonymous ticks and crosses but actual interviews and SARS assessments (very easy to do!) to see how much tax they contribute to the country (degree or no degree), what value they contribute to the fiscus and their criminal records. If we are found wanting, then we must leave as we were not good guests! Fair is fair and South Africans deserve the right to vet their guests! 

The ZEP permits were renewed three times before. Each time we compliantly paid some R1 000 per person to have our fingerprints collected again and again and our personal details resubmitted and dutifully stood in queues for days at the VFS Global offices across the country. 

At 250 000 migrants, that’s a lot of money… but if we have to pay R10 000 to get a reprieve this time around, then by all means please send us the directive — we will. The change of heart and decision to kick us out will have a devastating effect on our children and our families’ ability to sustain any kind of livelihood; we will gladly submit and pay. 

Perhaps even “devastating” is not a strong enough word. 

Throwing out the baby with the bath water 

As someone in the IT sector myself, I am in a critical skills category, and I assume many others are. We have skills the country needs and have been contributing positively. Others are teachers, nurses and doctors, small business people and technicians … all, ready and willing to contribute, and in South Africa 100% legally. They will all be cut by this sword that has been swung for what seems to be political expediency over moral good. 

We urge the ANC to remember the spirit of Ubuntu, Hunhu (in Shona). 

In his writings in the African Journal of Social Work, Vincent Mabvurira, reminded the reader thus: “The term ubuntu is expressed differently in several African communities and languages but all referring to the same thing. In Angola, it is known as gimuntu, Botswana (muthu)  . . . and Zimbabwe (hunhu/unhu/botho/ubuntu)” 

The author joins many well-to-do Zimbabweans in humbly reminding the government of South Africa … no, the fathers and mothers in the government of South Africa that we are all one. Despite our many differing tongues and tribes across the continent, we are still one people and if nothing else can hold us together anymore, let compassion, which is at the heart of ubuntu be the last thread that does hold fast. 

In Shona there is a saying which goes; “Reurutsai ruoko tenzi wangu”, crudely, one can imagine a slave girl who has erred in innocence and is about to be whipped, saying to her master “Lord, lighten thy hand that the pain be less.” 

Here’s hoping the whisper of conscience into the ear of someone with influence in government, through this article, becomes a scream for compassion and mercy and that “thy hand may be light”

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James Watadza
James Watadza is a father of two, husband to one and a self-taught software engineer with more than 10 years experience working in South Africa’s insurance and e-commerce industry.

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