Tarisai Moyo is one of the 250 000 Zimbabweans living and working in South Africa under special dispensation permits.
The permits, issued in 2010 by the department of home affairs, are valid for four years. They are due to expire in December.
Moyo, a softly spoken history teacher, works at the Albert Street School, which was founded by the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church in the inner city.
She was a teacher for 10 years in her home country before coming to South Africa in 2005. She came to Johannesburg because of the poor economic outlook in Zimbabwe.
She is “insecure” about her residency status in Johannesburg because neither home affairs officials nor officials from the Zimbabwe embassy are able to say whether her permit will be renewed.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, during his budget vote speech last month, said: “I am mindful of the anxiety among the Zimbabwean nationals in possession of this special permit issued in 2010, but I shall announce my decision in August.”
Another teacher, who did not want to be named, said the school could not afford to pay its electricity bill and the power had been cut off. The teacher said most parents cannot afford to pay school fees.
Moyo says being without legal papers scares her. “I have seen how the police in the inner city handle Zimbabweans without proper papers,” she says.
“Why is it the permits are issued specifically to Zimbabweans? I feel like we are being targeted. Why not to Somalis? I feel like the situation would be better if [Nelson] Mandela was still alive.”
Moyo has heard rumours that “we are going to be taken to our own country to make visas from there”.
School principal William Kandowe, also from Zimbabwe, is seated in his gloomy office behind a desk cluttered with papers. He is marking science exams. “I have asylum papers. I didn’t go to obtain the permit in 2010,” he says.
“Why were the permits issued only to Zimbabweans in the first place? The South African government is worried that, should it extend Zimbabweans’ stay for an extra year, some might want to apply for permanent residence.”
Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church says 1 300 Zimbabweans are staying at his church. “Most of these people are vulnerable and quite traumatised,” he says.
Some people do piece work during the day; others are teachers at the school. Every Wednesday evening they congregate at the church and pray and jubilantly sing Shona hymns before filing up to receive holy communion.
Verryn appealed to South Africans “to have a progressive mind-set towards foreign nationals”. “We need to recognise that openness to diversity is most important to our lives; that it brings us closer to humanity,” he said.
Dosso Ndessomin of the Co-ordinating Body of Migrant and Refugee Communities said this week he was positive that South Africa’s government would renew the permits.
The four-year permit “is not like the normal permits that would automatically give one the right to have permanent residence after a five-year stay in the country”, he said, and advised those whose permits had expired to report to their local home affairs office.
Moyo said she did not hold out much hope: “I am expecting the worst. But if the worst comes to the worst I will go home because it is difficult for a learned person like myself to become destitute.”
Home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete told the Mail & Guardian this week that he did not want to pre-empt Gigaba’s announcement.
“The announcement will be made soon enough, in a couple of weeks. The minister is still consulting with his Zimbabwean counterpart on the issue.”
Rapula Moatshe is the Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting, sponsored by CAF Southern Africa