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Low-skilled Zimbabweans struggle to qualify for SA visas as deadline for expiry of exempted permits looms

Advocate Gabriel Shumba of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum

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Many believe SA government is pushing them back to Zimbabwe by doing away with special permits

Thousands of low-skilled Zimbabwean nationals are finding it difficult to qualify for visas and many believe the SA cabinet’s decision to do away with the special exemption permit is aimed at pushing them out of the country.

With time slowly ticking towards the December deadline, many of the 180,000 holders of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), often referred to as the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation permit, are hoping the SA government will change its mind.

ZEP holders have been given until December 31 to apply for visas to continue living in SA, return to Zimbabwe, or face possible deportation as they would be declared illegal immigrants. 

In November last year, the cabinet announced that the ZEP would not be extended.

Advocate Gabriel Shumba, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum, said they were “extremely worried that the call to migrate to other permits seems cosmetic and there doesn’t appear to be any intention to ensure that the conditions for migration are realistic”.

“Many ZEP holders among our membership have been to the department of employment and labour to try to apply for a labour certificate, which is a prerequisite for an application for a general work visa … they have been informed that these certificates take up to a year to obtain,” Shumba said.

He said those who applied without the labour certificate were being turned away.

“This obviously creates a nightmare and a catch-22 situation that all right-thinking people see as a deliberate maze,” Shumba said.

He said another major stumbling block was that employers were also expected to give an undertaking that they will be liable for deportation costs should the applicant be refused the permit.

“Many [employers] are fearful of granting such an undertaking. Thus, many can’t apply and ultimately, you see that few have been able to submit,” Shumba said.

Another issue that faces Zimbabweans based in SA is that a police clearance from Zimbabwe is required.

Shumba said this did not make sense as some of the ZEP holders have been in SA for  more than 10 years.

“This is atrociously unreasonable and costly… [this is what] happens when you do not properly consult stakeholders, as we have seen with previous ministers,” Shumba said.

Maybe right now it’s better that I look for greener pastures because it’s very difficult [to acquire a visa]

Ingrid Kaunda, Zimbabwean restaurant employee in Johannesburg

The department of home affairs said it had already received more than 2,000 various categories of visa applications from affected Zimbabwean nationals.

Home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s spokesperson Siya Qoza said they also received about 3,000 waiver applications in terms of the Immigration Act. However, the applications were rejected as the ZEP entitles the holder to conduct work in the country but does not entitle the holder the right to apply for permanent residence irrespective of the period of stay. 

Qoza said the ZEP permits cannot be renewable or extendable; and that such permit holders cannot change conditions of their permit in SA.

“Individual letters were written to the affected Zimbabwean nationals requesting them to make representations,” Qoza said.

The Zimbabwe Exemption Permits came into being more than 10 years ago when SA experienced an influx of asylum seekers from Southern African Development Community countries, with the vast majority of them being Zimbabwean nationals.

The department of home affairs’ Asylum Seeker Management Unit was unable to cope with the numbers. The Musina Refugee Reception Centre was receiving more than 1,000 asylum seeker applications daily and did not have adequate staff and financial resources to deal with the arrivals, hence the ZEP was introduced to help manage the influx of Zimbabweans, according to the department.

Qoza said the exemptions granted to Zimbabwean nationals, which were extended twice, was and has always been a temporary measure, pending improvement of the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe.

He said the department of home affairs director-general made a submission to minister Aaron Motsoaledi in September 2021 recommending that the exemptions should not be extended.

The Helen Suzman Foundation has filed papers in the high court in Pretoria in a bid to declare cabinet’s decision to do away with the ZEP unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid.

An organisation — the Zimbabwe Permit Holders Association — also indicated that it was preparing to launch a court challenge to the department of home affairs’ decision to make permit holders apply for visas to legally stay in SA.

The strict requirements in obtaining a work visa have made the employers of long-time Pretoria gardener, Herbert Moyi, give up on helping him get a general working visa.

Moyi, 55, has been in SA since 1987 and works for four families in Pretoria who all tried but failed to get him a general work permit.

“All my employers tried to assist me but all of them have said it’s probably best to wait as currently the requirements are difficult to meet, including one that states that I need to apply for this permit while I’m home, but I live here,” Moyi said.

Moyi, who lives in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria, said he was considering returning to Zimbabwe in December when the ZEP ends.

Ingrid Kaunda, a restaurant employee in Johannesburg who has been in the country for six years, is investigating ways of getting to Europe.

What this decision [to make all ZEP holders migrate to other visas in one year] is likely to do is to create further backlogs Lindokuhle Mdabe, Lawyers For Human Rights

“Maybe right now it’s better that I look for greener pastures because it’s very difficult [to acquire a visa],” Kaunda said.

Though she has applied for the general work visa, she’s not hopeful that she’s going to be approved and has almost given up.

Ngqabutho Mabhena, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in SA and the African Diaspora Forum, said those whose professions do not fall under the critical skills required in the country were not qualifying for the permits.

“For you to qualify, your company needs to display that there’s no South African who can do the job that you’re doing … the majority of the ZEP holders are low-skill workers,” Mabhena said.

He said they believe the cabinet was influenced by the results of the local government elections in November, where parties that were seen to be anti-migrant, such as ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance, won seats in a number of municipalities.

“We think the [ZEP] permit is being done away with because migration was an issue.”

Lindokuhle Mdabe of Lawyers For Human Rights’ Durban unit said it seems the SA government may be saying to the holders of the ZEP that it’s time to go back home. He said even the 12 months that the ZEP holders were given to migrate to other visas does not seem sufficient, as this process alone would clog up home affairs’ permit systems.

“What this decision [to make all ZEP holders migrate to other visas in one year] is likely to do is to create further backlogs as people make migrations to those permits,” Mdabe said.

Mdabe said there was no evidence that the socioeconomic situation in Zimbabwe that made most Zimbabwean nationals escape to SA has changed.

“In fact, the situation in Zimbabwe is far worse post-Covid-19 … there’s a crisis here [in SA] and there’s a crisis everywhere.”

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