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Vigilance needed as South Africa welcomes Zimbabweans


Welcome to ZimbabweThe crowd outside the Home Affairs Office in Commissioner Street Home in central Johannesburg shows no sign of abating. Despite the onset of the wet season, which sees heavy rain almost daily, hundreds of Zimbabweans gather for their daily ritual wait. Some are checking on the progress of their applications for work or study permits: others, reportedly up to 800 a day nationally, are lining up for the first time to register.

As the 31 December deadline approaches for Zimbabwean nationals to register in South Africa it is becoming apparent that, as well intentioned as this project might appear, there are some serious flaws.

Last week the Department of Home Affairs announced it had received 123,000 applications for regularisation and had processed around 40,000. It also announced that, although there was to be no extension of the deadline, a receipt showing registration for the process would suffice to enable people to stay in the country past the deadline.

There are an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. While some of these people already have work permits, and others are included in special categories for which the current process does not apply (there were 145,000 Zimbabwean applicants for asylum last year who do not come under the process), there is nevertheless clearly something seriously wrong with the arithmetic.

Put simply, up to 1 million people do not seem to be accounted for. Government has repeatedly stated that those without valid documents after 31 March will be deported. There is fear that a humanitarian crisis looms.

Closer investigation of the implementation of the Zimbabwean Documentation Project reveals a process hastily put together without adequate prior consultation or planning. It is clear now that the project is aimed at people in formal employment and study — these have formed the majority of the applicants so far and many would have had passports already or, if not, could afford the costs to obtain one. South Africa stands to benefit by these mostly skilled people remaining in the country.

There was recognition too that many Zimbabweans were living with false identities and an amnesty was declared. It is unclear how many people have availed themselves of this.

But there are many groups of Zimbabweans who do not fall into these neat categories. Unaccompanied minors (young people under 18 who are not accompanied by an adult guardian and who have no such person in South Africa), many of whom have left Zimbabwe following the economic and social disintegration of their families and the collapse of the rural school system, are entitled to protection in South Africa from the Department of Social Development.

It is unclear how these people will be affected and highly likely that, already marginalised from systems, they will continue to attempt to live 'undocumented' and thus will remain extremely vulnerable.

Victims of trafficking and women victims of violence and trauma, some of whom are recruited for the illegal sex industry and thus will be unable to prove employment, remain another vulnerable group. Stateless people, those whose families moved to Zimbabwe from Malawi or Mozambique for work in the agricultural sector, will not be eligible for Zimbabwean passports — a key requirement for regularisation. Many had moved to South Africa after losing their jobs in the so-called land reforms. 

Seasonal workers are another group who cannot prove ongoing employment. It is encouraging to see that Home Affairs introduced a mobile registration unit in northern Limpopo province to take applications from farm labourers. There is an urgent need to extend this kind of outreach to workers in the informal sector, street vendors and others, who may have problems with proving their work status and/or identities and who are believed to form a much larger group.

Lastly there remains concern for genuine asylum seekers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of these, when they go to renew their permits, are being coerced into renouncing the asylum process in favour of regularisation. Here they come up against the ambiguity of their status — they most often do not qualify as a refugee, even though they perceive themselves to be in a refugee-like situation. Vigilance is needed. 

There is a growing awareness in government circles that the leniency and humanity shown to people fleeing from Zimbabwe in recent years has had the twin effect of putting pressure on the South African community at the same time as letting Mugabe's government 'off the hook'. It seems that political imperatives may have replaced humanitarian motives.

However, without better planning and some flexibility the South African authorities may have an embarrassing situation on its hands. One can only hope that when the time comes they have the common sense to recognise this, and that they act swiftly in response.

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

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean Documentation Project



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Existing comments

Thanks Father David for reminding us of the complexities of a tragedy that many Austraians know nothing about.

davidb | 22 December 2010  

i have 40 or so young zimbabweans nder my wing in SA, covering most of the above categroies, except underage. their position is preilous. They'd like to go back to Zim but dont think they can survive there. Thaat's why they came to SA in the first place.

peter roebuck | 22 December 2010  

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