South Africa shows compassion to Zimbabwean refugees


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 as they waited for their refugee claim to be processed. 

This 'half solution' had the positive effect of creating a means by which Zimbabwean people could move to and work legally in South Africa and so remit money home to their impoverished families. But it also created a number of difficulties. 

Others besides Zimbabweans were free to use the 'asylum route' as a migration pathway. In 2009, 222,324 people took advantage of the policy, making South Africa the biggest asylum destination anywhere. 

Genuine asylum seekers were penalised as the system quickly overloaded. Nor was this a lasting solution for the Zimbabweans themselves. Over ninety per cent of claimants were refused asylum. Their situation did not entitle them to refugee status under the various refugee conventions on which South African law is based. 

As a result many 'disappeared'. They assumed false identities or lived a precarious existence without documentation. On 2nd September the South African Government announced the end of this dispensation. 

The decision is both pragmatic and has elements of compassion. It allows Zimbabweans currently working, studying, or operating a business in South Africa to regularise their status by 31 December with a permit that will be valid for 4 years. Applicants must firstly obtain a Zimbabwean passport, and provide evidence of their work or study in South Africa. Those declaring false identity papers are to be given amnesty. Importantly, those seeking asylum will still have access to the Section 22 permit and a determination process. 

As was the case in 2009, there is much to commend this new decision. It is a brave attempt both to close some loopholes in the existing law and to create greater protection for this vulnerable group within the larger community. But problems remain. 

Although the cost of a Zimbabwean passport necessary to obtain a work permit was reduced to $50, this remains a large sum for many people. No one knows how long the Zimbabwean embassy will take to process applications.

The capacity of the South African authorities is also in question. Only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 people who stand to take advantage of the policy were processed in the first month. The deadline clearly needs to be extended.  Those in informal employment, too, will have difficulty in attaining the required documentation. 

The most serious criticism of the new rules is that they are based on an over-optimistic assessment of the Zimbabwean economy. Only time can tell whether this proves correct or whether people will still feel compelled to make the journey south. Ultimately nearly everyone agrees that the only end to this extraordinary migration is a political solution within Zimbabwe itself. And that, sadly, remains a long way off.

David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service for southern Africa.

Topic tags: South Africa, Zimbabwe, refugee, border, immigration, World Cup, David Holdcroft, JRS



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Existing comments

Not a lot to do with this article however I find the revolting behaviour of residents near Perth in their attempt to prevent a place for refugees to be housed, an abhorrence.

Listening to the uneducated thoughtless shouting, and speakers justifying their stance to not have these refugees in buildings which have been empty for years made me embarrassed to be an Australian
We need leadership in this country to reduce this sort of hysteria.
GAJ | 05 November 2010

Thank you David for this update on South African response to Zimbabwean asylum seekers. It clearly demonstrates a compassionate response to refugees, both political and economic.

This update also indicates what constitutes a large number of asylum seekers - 222,324 in 2009 alone compared with 24,000 boat people to Australia in 34 years.

South Africa, with its still developing economy, high rate of unemployment, community dissatisfaction with great disparities of wealth and social position, amply demonstrates to our selfish, self-centred nation a decent human response to asylum seekers.

Two points for emphasis:

1. In general - the more comfortable a nation is, the less likely it will welcome newcomers to share that comfort.

2. In particular for Australia - we continue to claim a moral high-ground of respect for human rights, a national tradition based on Judaeo-Christian values, and the folksy attitude of a fair go for every one. David's account reminds us how these moral positions should convert to practical responses in the world of real-politic.

It makes no difference whether our PM is an Atheist or a Catholic. If she/he cannot respond compassionately to people in need, the principles of both secular humanism and Christianity are ignored.

Ian Fraser | 05 November 2010

1.2 million Zimbabwean refugees; 222,000 applying for refuge in 2009; this in what is still a developing country.

Puts our 3,000 to 4,000 "boat people" in context, doesn't it?
Erik H | 05 November 2010

1.2 million Zimbabwean refugees; 222,000 applying for refuge in 2009; this in what is still a developing country.

Puts our 3,000 to 4,000 "boat people" in context, doesn't it?
Erik H | 05 November 2010

Migration across the world of very vulnerable people is a major problem; yet we have the appalling example of so many Australians, who are very well off by world standards, interested only in protecting their own privilege.

Here we are a country of immigrants demonising migrants; here we are, children of ancestors who traveled far to get a better life for us, refusing to share what we have with others!
Sheelah Egan | 05 November 2010

South Africa would have done better by undertaking a military strike against the racist regime in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has the potential to be one of the richest countries in Africa and there is no need for anybody to leave the country, provided the current regime is removed. Sometimes a “peaceful solution” is the cruelest solution.
BEAT ODERMATT | 05 November 2010

Agreed Beat. I grew up in the days when the left in the Church and secular media were demonising Ian Smith and singing hosannahs to Mugabe when it was blindingly obvious what would happen when he took over. The left didn't bat an eyelid when Mugabe imposed an increasingly brutal one-party dictatorship. It was only when he started bad mouthing the gay lifestyle that it went into shock and rage.

How Zimbabweans, black and white, must pine for the days of Ian Smith, one of the unsung heroes of the twentieth century who fought hopelessly but with total integrity for his country against the odds.
HH | 06 November 2010

Thanks for ur support 4 reffugees. Can u think about bursary 4 student reffugees?
David Bolomewa | 29 November 2010

Is it allowable for refugees to seek business partners and invest abroad? How dose the South African Government deal with refugees intending to invest abroad. Refugees investing in South Africa from their country of origin before being refugee in SA, are they allowed to access their funds?
KONOP WAKARI | 24 May 2013


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