Zimbabweans uncertain despite good news
ZSP re-applications for SA open,but time not on on their side over long process
MANY of the almost 200 000 Zimbabwean citizens in South Africa who hold a Zimbabwean Special Permit (ZSP) felt an enormous sense of relief on September 8 when Home Affairs Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize announced the conditions under which this special dispensation permit can be renewed.
ZSP reapplications were not part of the department’s original plan, nor were renewals of its predecessor, the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) permit. Instead, ZSP holders were advised that following the permit’s expiration on December 31 this year, those who qualified for a standard visa in South Africa would be required to apply in Zimbabwe. But the processing time required across the border is approximately two months or more, when everything goes smoothly.
Mkhululi Sibanda, a 35-year-old Zimbabwean who has been working in South Africa as a foundry foreman for 10 years, has been uncertain since his ZSP was issued in December 2014. “As a ZSP holder, they say my permit is not renewable,” he told me last month, when he and fellow ZSP holders were still in limbo. “I’m married with kids to a South African lady, and the thought of going back there (to Zimbabwe) and not knowing what will happen to me… It’s a nightmare.”
Sibanda’s employer, no doubt nervous about losing a significant portion of its staff, had begun regularly demanding to know what he planned to do when his permit expired at the end of this year.
“One immigration lawyer said there is a possibility of my getting a spousal permit in my country, but when I go there they will hold my passport for two months. I don’t want to be away from my family. And, as a permanent employee in South Africa, I can hardly get a single day off work. So leaving my job for two months, that will be the end of me and the end of my family.”
The permits were introduced in April 2009 to offer amnesty to Zimbabwean nationals who had been living in the country with fraudulent South African identity documents. The programme also aimed to establish a more accurate record of the Zimbabwean population, thousands of whom had already made lives for themselves in South Africa, and were part of South Africa’s economic and social fabric.
From September 15 to November 30 this year, ZSP holders are given the opportunity to re-apply for the right to live and work in South Africa under a newly introduced Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), said Mkhize last week.
The ZEP exemption is only available to holders of valid ZSP permits, and an administration fee of R1 090 will be charged.
But the real news is that the ZEP exemption enables eligible Zimbabweans to apply for other mainstream visas from within South Africa without the need to put their lives on hold. For Sibanda, this means that a spousal visa may become a reality. Businesspeople, students and critically skilled individuals will also be able to escape the confines of a rigid and unpredictable dispensation programme.
Leading South African immigration attorney Gary Eisenberg says that the minster’s decision reflects a new wisdom. “To date, the ZSP programme was purely a political programme that straightjacketed permit holders from changing their status to visas which could possibly lead to permanent residence.
“Zimbabwean citizens have attributions of education and experience that would benefit South Africa in ways that were never previously recognised. South Africa will derive substantial intellectual capital from the pool of almost 200 000 ZSP holders living, working and operating their own businesses in this country.”
Former director-general at Home Affairs, now chairperson of Corruption Watch, Mavuso Msimang, agrees that South Africa needs new and more progressive approaches to immigration. “We should deal with the reality that South Africa, with the biggest economy in Africa, is perceived to offer the best business and job opportunities.”
But the question of “why now?” hangs in the air. Current ZSP holders who are eligible for standard visas are entitled to change status in South Africa, while past ZSP and ZDP holders are not. Nor will future ZEP holders be afforded this right, according to conditions outlined by the minister. And Zimbabweans who do qualify for work or residence permits have to effectively start from square one in terms of applying for permanent residence, regardless of how long they have resided in the country or been part of the dispensation programme.
But for ZSP holders who – until the minister’s apparent change of heart last month – had been told that renewal of their permits was not possible, and that visa applications necessitated a two-month wait in Zimbabwe, this is still good news.
“Should the minster have refused to extend the ZSP programme, the South African fiscus would have had to support an unrealistic volume of deportations,” says Eisenberg.
“The minister had no option but to extend the programme, relieving the political and socio-economic burden that South Africa would have had to bear in a situation where 200 000 foreigners had no immigration status come January 1, 2018.”
Sadly, time is not on these Zimbabweans’ side. VFS – the company at which visa applications are submitted before being processed by Home Affairs – is expected to receive thousands of ZEP applications. Alternative visa applications must presumably be made before the ZSP expires on December 31, although details of this have not been released.
“The minister has unfortunately not given ZSP holders sufficient time. It may take two or three months to prepare a critical skills work visa application, which includes the evaluation by SAQA (the South African Qualifications Authority) of foreign qualifications, the registration with professional bodies, and so forth,” Eisenberg cautions.
Mkhize assumed her current position on March 31 this year, but her failure to make a decision and to ensure clear communication with the public in the last five months will no doubt have a negative impact on certain Zimbabwean citizens’ future in South Africa.
“Sadly, there is still a cloud over my head due to a lack of information that one gets at these VFS offices,” Sibanda said after the minster’s announcement. “Unfortunately, we foreigners are never treated like human beings at these offices”
Eisenberg said: “Political mood and the latent xenophobia manifest in South African society cannot continue to sway political decisions. South Africa has an undetermined number of undocumented foreigners sojourning in this country. The intellectual capital that they constitute is enormous and must be harvested in South Africa’s national interest.”
Msimang estimates that no fewer than 75% of South Africans hire Zimbabweans. “They are considered to work hard and, no doubt, to accept less pay. But this is not about cheap labour. We get more for our money by hiring foreigners.”