Zimbabwean migrants are part of South Africa’s fabric

The termination of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit would damage South Africa’s reputation as a human rights leader in the region.

A migrant worker is detained by South Africa Police Services
A migrant worker is detained by South Africa Police Services officers after being stopped at a check point during an operation with the Home Affairs Immigration officers, September 22, 2022 [File: Marco Longari/AFP]

From April 11 to 14, a full bench of the Pretoria High Court heard an application to set aside the termination of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), a special facility allowing 178,421 holders temporary legal status to live, work, conduct business and study in South Africa.

In April 2009, South Africa established the Dispensation of Zimbabwean Permit (DZP) to regularise the status of thousands of Zimbabwean nationals who had fled political and economic instability in their country, mostly between 2007 and 2009.

The special exemption was reissued as the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP) in 2014 and the ZEP in 2017, before South Africa’s cabinet decided to cancel it altogether in November 2021.

To ease their plight, ZEP holders were given a 12-month grace period – an extension ending on December 31, 2022 – to either apply for a mainstream visa or leave the country.

Nevertheless, in September 2022, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi extended the validity of the ZEP by a further six months, to June 30, 2023, delaying an arduous and unclear finale for the forsaken Zimbabweans.

If the case lodged at the Pretoria High Court does not produce a favourable outcome for the ZEP holders, many of these migrants and their families (each ZEP holder is believed to have approximately three to four dependents) will have to leave South Africa or face deportation.

According to the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa and Zimbabwe Migrants Support Network, most ZEP holders are low-wage workers who do not qualify for mainstream work permits and their chances of being granted a regulatory waiver – an exemption that would override the normal visa requirements – appear remote.

So they have not applied for conventional visas, but have placed their hopes of remaining in South Africa as documented people on a successful legal challenge.

While the home affairs ministry has not yet published the number of ZEP holders who have applied for mainstream visas to date, we know that only 10 percent had done so by December 2022.

Strangely enough, the present dilemma seemed to be an improbable outcome for the hapless Zimbabweans several years ago.

In 2019, Motsoaledi declared that the special exemption facilities for migrants from Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Angola would be renewed – pending cabinet approval.

“We can’t stop those special permits if the problems that led to those special permits are not yet resolved,” he said.

As Motsoaledi predicted, the socioeconomic situation in Zimbabwe has not improved under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ascended to office following a November 2017 military coup that removed longtime strongman Robert Mugabe.

Mnangagwa has failed to rein in high unemployment, a world-leading inflation rate and widespread corruption – and he has failed to resuscitate a long-stricken public healthcare sector.

Even South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) party, a longtime ally of Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, has expressed alarm over the widespread and precipitous decline in the neighbouring country.

In November 2020, it sent a high-ranking delegation to Zimbabwe in a commendable but futile attempt to help resolve a disastrous socio-political and economic situation that is fuelling high levels of irregular migration through its borders and the wider Southern African region.

Zimbabweans struggling to keep afloat in their country due to the protracted crisis are still trying to make their way towards South Africa and other better-off countries across the region in considerable numbers.

Zimbabwean authorities, for instance, arrested 89,000 border jumpers trying to reach South Africa and Botswana through unlawful entry points during a special operation in 2022.

Likewise, across the Limpopo River, South African authorities arrested hundreds of would-be migrants every day attempting to make illegal crossings.

Zimbabwe’s economy is in the doldrums and countless Zimbabweans want to move abroad – a depressing but longstanding fact that could discourage most ZEP holders from leaving South Africa before or after June 30.

Notwithstanding these substantial and pervasive troubles, Motsoaledi defended the termination of the special exemption in January 2022 on the grounds that it was always supposed to be “a temporary measure – pending improvement of the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe”.

Additionally, he claimed the home ministry had inadequate financial and human resources to facilitate the extensions of the special exemptions.

Be that as it may, June 30 will forever become a depressing and problematic milestone for everyone.

With the end of ZEP, thousands of men, women and children who have become active and bona fide members of diverse communities will face a bleak and unclear future.

And South Africa will lose out by ending a groundbreaking and comprehensive Pan-African facility that helped manage migration and promote socioeconomic stability in Zimbabwe and across Southern Africa.

When the ZSP was introduced in 2014, the then minister of home affairs, Malusi Gigaba, lauded the accomplishments of Zimbabwean migrants.

“Zimbabweans have made notable contributions in our education and health sectors, for example, as teachers and health professionals, and in many other sectors,” he said.

They certainly have.

Take Hastings Mpofu, a history teacher who works at Summerhill College in Midrand, Gauteng.

In the last 15 years, he has won awards for producing exceptional results at government and private schools.

Naturally, Mpofu does not want to leave his adopted home because “the conditions in Zimbabwe have still not changed” and his mother and two siblings depend on the remittances he sends home every month.

Similarly, Wilfred, a deputy principal at a private school, who teaches geography and English, is apprehensive about the future, but determined to stay in South Africa.

“I am prepared to stay here illegally. I am even willing to do menial jobs. This will be survival of the fittest,” he said.

In addition to teachers, there are Zimbabweans who have made less conspicuous but priceless contributions to South Africa’s economy.

Some work as forecourt attendants, panel beaters, farmworkers, salespersons, childminders, builders, painters, welders, cleaners and drivers. Others run small but essential businesses in townships and urban centres.

At a micro-level, ZEP holders have contributed towards South Africa’s socioeconomic wellbeing and prosperity in an open and lawful manner.

But from June 30, many will lose their livelihoods and homes, as well as access to banking services and pension funds.

Their children and spouses will no longer have unrestricted access to schooling, social services and medical care.

Already, Operation Dudula, an anti-migration vigilante group, has been preventing undocumented African migrants from entering public health facilities in Johannesburg, a severe and inhumane transgression that could result in many preventable illnesses and deaths.

So keeping the special exemption going should be a social and economic imperative for all who live in South Africa.

Without a legal status, many ZEP holders will likely continue to live and work in South Africa, but as undocumented people – much like they did before the special exemption came into effect in April 2009.

In that case, a sizeable number of the 178,421 ZEP holders would not be able to pay tax – a development that will undoubtedly lead to a reduction in the revenues collected by South Africa’s tax authorities.

Furthermore, with time, thousands might choose to apply for asylum seeker permits, thus piling additional pressure on the home ministry’s limited resources – one of the foremost reasons why the special exemption was created in the first place.

Sure, the naysayers will argue that South Africa has its own pressing socioeconomic problems to tackle – like widespread poverty and high unemployment – so it should not accommodate foreigners from Zimbabwe.

But after 14 years, ZEP holders can no longer be classified as outsiders – they are dynamic, hardworking and assimilated tax-paying residents who deserve to stay.

The preamble of the constitution says, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it” – which includes Zimbabweans and other migrants.

South Africa has always demonstrated strong and enterprising leadership in human rights-related matters. It is high time for it to live up to its reputation as a human rights leader in the region and create a viable, long-term status for ZEP holders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.