Zimbabweans in South Africa face deportation as permit deadline looms

ZEP in a passport


Civil rights organizations have urged the South African government to extend the deadline for the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), which is due to expire on 30 June 2023. The ZEP allows Zimbabweans who were previously granted amnesty in 2010 to live and work in South Africa legally.

The Global South Against Xenophobia (GSAX) and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) have warned that the cancellation of the ZEP will create an imminent humanitarian crisis for about 178,000 Zimbabweans who have not applied for alternative permits such as spousal or work permits. They say that many ZEP holders do not qualify for other visas due to the lack of special skills waivers and employment restrictions.

In a letter to the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, GSAX convener Roshila Nair said:

The sudden announcement on the intended cancellation by the DHA [department of home affairs] has created an imminent humanitarian crisis for them. Circumstances in Zimbabwe have not changed and the DHA’s call for them to apply for alternative permits has thus seen a poor uptake as many holders work in ordinary employment and do not qualify for special skills waivers.

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who represents the Zimbabwe Immigrants Forum (ZIF), a group of about 1,000 ZEP holders, has filed an urgent application in the Pretoria High Court to prevent the ZEP from coming to an end. He argued that the minister acted outside his powers by scrapping the ZEP system in 2021. He said:

We are sleepwalking into a catastrophe of monumental proportions. Discontinuing with ZEP means 178,000 holders and their families will be declared illegal foreigners on 1 July 2023. We are seeking interim relief to protect the constitutional rights of permit holders and ensure they are not deported or arrested, among other things.

Advocate Gabriel Shumba, the chairperson of Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, has also appealed for dialogue with the stakeholders and called for empathy, humanity and ubuntu from the South African government. He said:

We believe that it is not too late for dialogue with the stakeholders. There is a need for empathy, humanity and ubuntu to unravel this logjam which is sacrificing documented people who for years have contributed to the economy and have regularised their status after abandoning asylum in some instances.

The expiration of the ZEP affects not only the holders but also their families, including children who were born in South Africa and are at risk of losing their rights. Some ZEP holders have expressed their fears of leaving behind the life they have built for themselves and their dependants in South Africa.

The ZEP was introduced in 2017 as a successor to the Zimbabwe Special Permit (ZSP), which was itself a successor to the Dispensation for Zimbabwe Permit (DZP) that was granted in 2010 as an amnesty to Zimbabweans who had either illegitimately claimed asylum or fraudulently acquired other South African legal documents. The ZEP was meant to be valid until December 2021, but it was extended until June 2023 due to the Covid-19 pandemic12.

The ZEP provided Zimbabwean nationals in South Africa with opportunities for a better life that were previously unattainable in their home country due to economic conditions1However, the call for Zimbabweans to apply for alternative permits has seen poor uptake, partly due to the lack of special skills waivers and employment restrictions

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