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South Africa shows compassion to Zimbabwean refugees

  • 05 November 2010

If one ventures into downtown Johannesburg these evenings, you will witness an unusual sight: a straggly queue of hundreds of people winding down Harrison Street for a number of city blocks. 

Some lie under blankets, catching snatches of sleep on the concrete. Others munch away on roast chicken wings or pap peddled by the ubiquitous throng of hawkers so characteristic of any public gathering in South Africa. 

One is reminded of the long nightly queues that formed in Sandton of people waiting to purchase tickets for the World Cup. However this line ends not at a ticket booth but rather at an office of the Department of Home Affairs. 

Those in the queue are some of the estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million Zimbabweans presently living in South Africa. They are here to apply for work permits having been told they must secure them by December 31st this year or face deportation. 

Most Zimbabweans have come to South Africa as a result of a combination of factors. The political violence that marred the 2008 elections and the various land reform programs that have displaced many, are two such factors. But most observers cite the total collapse of the economy, also in 2008, with the accompanying hyperinflation that rendered the local currency worthless and led to the introduction of the United States Dollar, as the main reason.

Initially the South African authorities took a legalistic approach towards the Zimbabwean migration, turning people without documentation back at the border. Deportations were common Desperate people would try again and again to make the crossing. At one stage the army was deployed to fight an unwinnable battle. 

For the migrants, avoiding the authorities was only one of the dangers faced on the journey. Many fell foul of the amagumaguma, local thieves who posed as minibus drivers. Many are believed to have died from violence, drowning, and the occasional crocodile attack in the Limpopo River that lines the frontier. 

In April 2009 South Africa introduced a policy of 'special dispensation'. Deportations were halted. Those without documentation were to be issued with a special permit to enable them to live and work in South Africa. 

To the disappointment of NGOs there was a change in government and the special permit was never introduced. But Zimbabweans crossing the border were issued with a 'Section 22' renewable asylum permit. It enabled the bearer to live and seek work in South Africa for a period of 6 months