The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, has tried to bring some clarity to the chaos and confusion surrounding the documentation process for Zimbabweans living in South Africa. But even with his assurances that all permits will be processed on time for the December 31 deadline, the numbers just don’t add up.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, of the 10 287 applications that have been submitted since September 20, 2 126 have been approved and 174 have been rejected.
The department has just 350 000 Zimbabwean nationals on record who have legally entered South Africa through its sea, land and airports, but the International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are between 1,5-million and two million Zimbabwean nationals living in the country.
According to Leon Isaacson, the managing director of specialist migration company Global Migration South Africa, Home Affairs has about 60 working days, excluding public holidays and weekends, to process at least 5 000 applications a day if it is going to meet its end-of-year deadline.
Experts believe it is impossible for the department to process all Zimbabwean applications in just three months, especially considering a 200 000-strong aslyum-seeker backlog.
But Home Affairs spokesperson Mzwandile Radebe told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that only three kinds of permits were being issued during this relaxed period: work, study and business permits. Refugee and asylum-seeker permits would have to be applied for through the normal processes.
In addition to the Zimbabwean documentation process, the department also came under fire this week from immigration practitioners who said there was a massive backlog in the issue of skilled-work permits.
Betsi Pendry, an American national working in South Africa since 1998, has first-hand experience. Pendry was fired from her job as programme manager at Constitution Hill last week after failing to get her work permit through Home Affairs. She was on a special-skills visa and had filed her application for a renewal in July. By the end of September, the application had still not been approved.
Although stories like Pendry’s aren’t uncommon, Home Affairs maintains that it can and will process the Zimbabwean applications and will not back off from its December 31 deadline.
Radebe said a national staff contingent of 354 people had been put together, dedicated solely to the documentation project.
Although Home Affairs is not sure how many people will come forward to get regularised, the department said one Home Affairs official should adjudicate 46 applications each day.
Radebe said applicants must first submit all the necessary documents for their permit. After this, applicants are checked against the Immigrations Act for sound and good character, probed for possible possession of a criminal record and their skills are considered. Radebe said there is no quota for the number of people who will be issued permits.
Isaacson said that this lack of clarity on who would qualify for work, study or business permits is part of the problem. As is the requirement for those Zimbabweans seeking work permits to get a letter from their employer as part of the application process. Employers fear they will be prosecuted for employing illegal immigrants.
On Wednesday Gigaba urged employers to help their Zimbabwean employees obtain the necessary documents, assuring them that they were also protected by the amnesty period ending December 31.
A spokesperson for home affairs told the M&G last week that although low-skilled workers — including domestic and restaurant workers — would not normally qualify for a work permit, under the new rules they are eligible.