Editorial: There’s a crisis coming

There is a crisis coming — and it will cascade through the Southern African region. It’s an economic crisis and thus a humanitarian crisis. And it’s driven by South Africa’s immigration policies.

It started in November/December last year when the department of home affairs decided to scrap the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), introduced in 2009 to the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who sought refuge in South Africa after the state-sponsored campaign of violence and repression of Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, which claimed thousands of victims, mostly opposition supporters.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has disingenuously said that ZEP holders have a year in which to regularise their stay in South Africa — they “should apply for mainstream visas that they qualify for”. The department lies. Most of the 182 000 ZEP holders will not qualify for the mainstream visas — tourist visa, visit visa for 90 days, business visa, work visa, medical visa, study visa, relatives visa, exchange visa and retired persons visa. 

The home affairs department website states that work visas are issued to foreigners who possess specific skills that are in demand. The duration of the visa depends on the type of work which the applicant will do. The government has outsourced the processing of visas to the Global Visa Facilitation Services Centre (Global VFS).

Then Motsoaledi published a critical skills list on 2 February, which lists 101 jobs in fields such as investment analysts, naval architects, engineers and environmental scientists and require university degrees. Most of the 182 000 ZEP holders will not qualify as most are “unskilled” labourers and domestic workers who do not have the requisite degrees and do not qualify under the critical skills list.

And there’s no going to home affairs and pleading on humanitarian grounds. Unlike many other countries, South Africa’s visa system is extreme; there is no “humanitarian visa”. Furthermore, the Global VFS will filter out anyone who does not fit the strict requirements of the system.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies noted that ZEP holders who changed over from the asylum system to the immigration system are now at risk.

The lives of ZEP holders will be thrown into disarray. Most have been in South Africa for 10 or more years and some have their homes here and their children attend schools in the country. Their uprooting will cause immense distress. 

Others support their families and extended families living in Zimbabwe. Most ZEP holders earn very little and the money they send home is mostly spent on food and school fees, clothing and textbooks. Denying ZEP holders will mean sending them back to the ongoing economic crisis in that country. The Zimbabwe government claims an unemployment rate of 6%. This is ludicrous. Most people are self-employed doing work such as selling items on the streets. 

The country is on the verge of famine and chronic malnutrition is endemic. The 2021 Zimbabwe National Vulnerability Assessment Committee report stated that 60% of its people face acute food insecurity. 

Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, announced last year that remittances from the diaspora reached $1-billion in 2020, compared with $636-million in 2019. These figures are only the official flows through formal channels. 

And it’s not only Zimbabweans who will be affected. As the Mail & Guardian previously reported, experts have said the immigration policies will result in a sharp decline in remittances being sent from South Africa to its neighbouring countries, driving people back into extreme poverty, particularly people at the lower end of income distribution in African countries. 

The countries most dependent on remittances are Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho. Remittances in 2018 from South Africa to the Southern Africa Development Community countries was R21.8-billion. Of that amount almost R10-billion was to Zimbabwe. In 2020, this represented 10% of Zimbabwe’s GDP. 

The government appears to have adopted the views of other political parties such as the Patriotic Front, Action SA, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance. Is the ANC attempting to win support ahead of the general elections in 2024? 

What are we to make of ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe’s statement: “We understand what other African countries did to help South Africa dismantle the apartheid machinery, but [this can’t lead to a] permanent [thinking] that some who come from those countries can even come and abuse the laws of the republic. [They] can’t  come here, sell drugs, seat [sic] here illegally, undermine our sovereignty, create illegal businesses … There is empathy for organisations such as Dudula for as long as they operate under conditions of law. Actually we need more voices like that.” 

Even worse, the immigration policies are fueling the already present xenophobia in South Africa. Witness the actions of vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula. Think back on the burning man in 2008. Recall the looting of spaza shops in the townships around the country. Remember the xenophobic harassment and attacks by South Africans, as well as government and law enforcement officials in 2019 and 2020 and the death of 12 people in September 2019. Such on-the-ground actions will not change until government policy does.

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