Zimbabweans have become part of South Africa’s fabric. There are anywhere between one and three million Zimbabweans living and working in the country.
More than 200 000 Zimbabweans are here on a special visa that will expire at the end of the year. Although government has outlined paths for them to remain in the country legally, the process is clouded by confusion and bureaucratic hurdles.
It should come as little surprise that, seven years after South Africa introduced the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (ZDP), which offered amnesty to Zimbabweans who had been living in the country with fraudulent documents, those who hold these permits have become part of South Africa’s economic and social makeup.
A total of 242 731 Zimbabweans were granted a permit under the banner of the ZDP in 2010. The department of home affairs waived fees and the need for certain supporting documents, including passports.
Shortly before the ZDP was due to expire in December 2014, the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation permit (ZSP) replaced it, under the same condition that it would not be renewable.
Instead, ZSP holders were advised that, following the permit’s expiration on December 31 2017, those who qualified for a standard visa in South Africa would have to apply in Zimbabwe, where the processing time is about two months, without accounting for delays. Those who did not qualify for a standard visa would have to return to Zimbabwe.
But, as the December 31 deadline approached, there was little clarity from home affairs about how it would be implemented, causing uncertainty among Zimbabwean permit holders, their families and their employers.
This month, recognising that it was simply not feasible to deport more than 200 000 people, home affairs outlined ways in which Zimbabweans covered by the ZSP could legally remain in South Africa.
“Should the minister have refused to extend the ZSP programme, the South African fiscus would have had to support an unrealistic volume of deportations,” said Gary Eisenberg, an immigration attorney. “The minister had no option but to extend the programme, relieving the political and socioeconomic burden that South Africa would have had to bear in a situation where 200 000 foreigners [would have] no immigration status come 1 January 2018.”
This potential turmoil was not lost on Mkhululi Sibanda, a 35-year-old Zimbabwean who has been working in South Africa as a foundry foreman for 10 years, and whose ZSP will expire at the end of the year.
“Imagine, I’ve been working in the same organisation for 10 years, and my provident fund is standing at close to R1-million now. If hundreds or thousands of us [Zimbabweans] take this money out, what will happen to South Africa’s economy?”
Sibanda has been plagued by uncertainty ever since his ZSP was issued in December 2014. He arrived in South Africa in May 2007 when, he said, there was a general lack of knowledge about permits. At first, his employer had allowed him to work on a visitor’s visa.
When Home Affairs Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize announced that the ZSP could be renewed under certain conditions, Sibanda was overcome with relief. He is married to a South African, and had dreaded the thought of returning to Zimbabwe for two months or more to apply for a visa that would not necessarily be granted.
“As a permanent employee in South Africa, I can hardly get a single day off work,” he said. “Leaving my job for two months … that would be the end of me and my family.”
Under the new conditions, Sibanda has two options. The first is to apply for the new Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), a kind of extension of the ZSP. This expires in December 2021, with little clarity on what comes next — it essentially just kicks the immigration can four years down the road.
The second is to apply for a mainstream visa in South Africa, which means he does not have to risk his livelihood during a prolonged stay over the border.
Sibanda can also apply for a spousal visa, which should settle his immigration status once and for all.
For Zimbabweans like Sibanda, who qualify for mainstream visas — business owners, students, individuals with critical skills and those married to South Africans — this is good news.
Finally, they will be able to escape the confines of a rigid and unpredictable dispensation programme, which holds them hostage to the next round of political negotiations when the ZEP’s expiry date nears.
But the majority of Zimbabweans, who don’t qualify for mainstream visas, may never circumvent the red tape.
Nyasha Maziye, a Zimbabwean with a degree in accounting, designed and now runs short courses in information communication technology. Despite his contribution to the economy, Maziye does not qualify for a mainstream visa.
Eisenberg says that is because South Africa’s entire immigration system is outdated, and not fit for purpose. “South Africa’s immigration system has failed to increase the quality of immigrants,” said Eisenberg. “Its critical skills programme in particular is devised from purely anecdotal occupational category creations.”
Were Maziye a sheep-shearer, a customer services manager or somebody with one of the other “critical skills” on an infrequently updated list, he would be eligible for a critical skills visa and, after five years, a permanent residence permit. But, as Eisenberg pointed out, the critical skills programme does not reflect the skills deficits in the economy.
Former director general at home affairs and current chairperson of Corruption Watch, Mavuso Msimang, agrees that South Africa needs a new, more progressive approach to immigration. “We should deal with the reality that South Africa, with the biggest economy in Africa, is perceived to offer the best business and job opportunities.”
Until reform happens, however, the question of “what next” still hangs in the air — and the process remains complicated and confusing — especially for Zimbabweans who must find a way to navigate through the bureaucracy.
There are also questions about the ability of VFS — the company at which visa applications are submitted before being processed by home affairs — to process all ZEP applications between September 15 and November 30 this year.
“The minister has unfortunately not given ZSP holders sufficient time. It may take two or three months to prepare a critical skills work visa application, which includes the evaluation by SAQA [the South African Qualifications Authority] of foreign qualifications, the registration with professional bodies, and so forth,” Eisenberg said.
Since the ZEP announcement, Sibanda has been seeking information from VFS about his visa application. “There is a cloud over my head due to a lack of information at the VFS,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we foreigners are never treated like human beings at these offices.”