SA: Zimbabweans on legal cliff edge despite ZEP court victory

SA: Zimbabweans on legal cliff edge despite ZEP court victory

By Ciaran Ryan I Moneyweb

The recent court victory declaring the termination of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) system unlawful has merely delayed the ultimate day of reckoning for 178 000 ZEP holders and their families in SA.

A new study by the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) argues that the government’s attempt to terminate the ZEP system holds dire consequences for both SA and the broader region. The government is appealing the court decision.

“Dislocating ZEP holders will negatively affect South Africans too,” says the report entitled Neither a Beggar Nor a Thief. “For example, local producers and retailers will lose revenue if there are fewer people buying goods in SA to send back to Zimbabwe, and that could affect jobs. There’s also rental income and the like that will be lost. The SA economy has been enjoying [the] skills of people who were educated at little or no cost to this economy.”

ZEP holders spoke of waiting hours to apply for permits at the Department of Home Affairs, unsure whether their lives in SA would be shut down from one day to the next.

‘Hypocrisy of ruling elites’

The SA government’s lacklustre response to xenophobia had created a climate of fear and uncertainty for Zimbabweans and other minorities, said several speakers at the report launch event on Saturday.

Zimbabweans surveyed in the course of the research reported a marked rise in xenophobia in recent years, with authorities seldom missing a chance to single out foreigners as the source of crime and other ills in SA.

The ministers of foreign affairs of both Zimbabwe and SA met recently, but did not raise the matter of ZEP holders, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the ruling elites, said Lance Mpofu, one of the report researchers.

“There is a perception that ZEP holders in SA are taking [from the country] when in fact, they contribute in many ways,” said UJ project coordinator Lydia Moyo.

The permit system was introduced in 2009 and extended several times as a way of regularising the status of Zimbabweans fleeing to SA for political or economic reasons. It allows permit holders to live, work and study in SA.

The ZEP system and its predecessor programmes provided temporary legal sanctuary to Zimbabweans in SA but had, in effect, been used to deny them permanent residency.

“Because of constantly changing special permits with special limitations, today they are still perched on a crumbling permit edge,” the report said.

Lecturers on exemption permits ‘let go’ by SA government
Zimbabwean prisoners want to be paroled and repatriated
I left Zimbabwe to live in SA. I want to go back …

“The report highlights the manner in which the ZEP was used to block Zimbabweans from becoming permanent residents in SA, and how the SA government has made life nearly impossible for ZEP holders and, one could argue, for Zimbabweans living in SA,” said Advocate Simba Chitando, who represented the ZEP Holders Association (Zepha) in its recent court case against the SA government.

Zepha is asking the court to allow ZEP holders the right to apply for permanent residency.


UJ’s Centre for Sociological Research and Practice said cancelling the permit system will not curb migration from Zimbabwe; it will only criminalise it. “This will incur a ridiculous waste of resources, both in policing and in being policed,” the report said.

The authors recommend three steps to ease the permit crisis:

  • Make it easier for migrants to obtain documents – current obstacles include unreasonable requests for documents previously submitted and the Department of Home Affairs apparently declaring as ‘fraud’ any inconsistencies in documentation;
  • Renew permits or restore asylum seeker status without requiring resubmission of documents and other unreasonable requirements (the Department of Home Affairs required permit applicants to renounce claims to asylum); and
  • Allow permit holders to apply for permanent residency.

The overriding argument for granting permanent residency is the human catastrophe that would ensue from a termination of the permit programme. Zimbabweans interviewed in the course of the research spoke of the hopeless economic situation back home that forced them to seek refuge in SA. Most said they have nothing to go back to.

Should government terminate the ZEP system, 178 000 permit holders would either have to apply for alternative visas based on an impossibly narrow ‘critical skills list’ or face deportation. Many have South African spouses, and what would happen to the children of these marriages remains an open question.

Ciaran Ryan is a Johannesburg-based freelance writer who has a background in finance and mining, having previously headed up a gold mining operation in Ghana. He currently writes for several SA and overseas journals on matters ranging from mining to investment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *