Zimbabwean tech-workers hit hard by new South African immigration laws

Lured by rich job opportunities in South Africa’s tech scene, thousands of migrants from across the continent flooded into the country. Now, those jobs are out of reach.

By Kimberly Mutandiro

Ishmael Sithole had high hopes for his future when he graduated with a degree in software engineering from the University of Zimbabwe in 2009. Within a few weeks, he had secured a well-paid corporate job in Harare, but Zimbabwe’s economy was already crumbling. As the fast-rising inflation rate rendered Sithole’s salary meaningless, he migrated to South Africa on an asylum visa — he had heard stories about tech skills being in demand in the country.

By 2013, Sithole had secured a critical skills work visa. He now worked at global mining company Anglo American, and earned around 37,000 rand ($1,956) per month.

Lately, however, his fortunes have changed.

In April this year, Sithole lost his job due to a long delay in renewing his visa. “Without a valid visa, my days in South Africa are numbered,” he told Rest of World, speaking under a pseudonym as he feared jeopardizing his visa renewal process and future employment prospects. “All I have is a receipt from the Department of Home Affairs as proof I applied for a visa renewal. It’s not a work visa, and I can get deported.” He now works as a computer repairman, hustling for clients around Johannesburg.

Sithole is among the many migrants who came to South Africa on skilled work visas and with high-paying jobs, but who are now struggling to find and retain work. The reason is increasing protectionism in South Africa, which currently has an unemployment rate of around 32%.

“These [new immigration and labor] laws are now making it difficult for skilled migrants, including those with tech skills, to get employment,” Vusumuzi Sibanda, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, an organization representing migrant workers in South Africa, told Rest of World. “In the past, skilled migrants could easily get jobs with or without a visa. These stringent laws favor citizens and are spurning away the [tech] skill set which migrants have to offer.”

A collage of a group of a protestors holding a banner with #PutSouthAfricansFirst in a yellow color tint with a background of South Africa visa stamps and residence permits.
Shutterstock/Getty Images/Rest of World

Many migrant tech workers have resorted to odd jobs to stay afloat. Some now stand on busy streets across South African cities, hoping to be offered employment by people in passing vehicles.

“Without a valid visa, my days in South Africa are numbered.”

South Africa is home to approximately 2.9 million migrants, including those who are internally displaced, asylum seekers, and refugees mostly from economically unstable countries. There has been a rise in xenophobia in South Africa over the last few years. In 2021, the government introduced a new law restricting the employment of migrants in the country due to persistent pressure from local youth groups. The following year, the government introduced a policy that prioritizes the employment of South Africans, restricting migrants from setting up small businesses in some industries. The law also limits the sectors in which migrants can open small businesses.

“As long as [migrants] have proper papers, a worker is a worker,” Teboho Thejane, chief communications officer for the Department of Labor in South Africa, told Rest of World. However, there are long, career-impacting delays in visa renewals that immigration and labor experts have linked to the new laws.

Percy Nyathi, a systems developer, worked at Samsung in Johannesburg for a year, before getting laid off in 2020 when his critical skills visa expired. Despite applying for permanent residency three years ago, his application status is still unknown. “The laws have changed. As it stands, I’m trying to look for a job, but most technical support jobs are now classified for citizens and those on permanent residency only,” Nyathi told Rest of World. “Besides, one has to have a valid visa to get a job.” He said most engineering and technical support roles were now restricted to those with permanent residency and citizenship.

In 2022, immigration organizations in South Africa raised the alarm at how the Department of Home Affairs had failed to keep its promise to fast-track skilled visas. Instead of clearing its backlog of applications, the department rejected over 70% of the visas. Some tech workers now remain in the country illegally.

According to Julian Pokroy, an immigration specialist at the Law Society of South Africa, this increase in skilled visa rejections could negatively affect foreign investments. “Regulations and categories have been changed by the Department of Labor, Department of Trade and Industry, and the Department of Home Affairs, making the process of acquiring and renewing a skilled work visa as a migrant worker incredibly difficult,” Pokroy told Rest of World. “Such a denial of a skilled workforce is a threat to foreign investment. Investors are losing confidence due to the country’s poor regulations in the skilled visa category.” He added that immigration and labor policies in the country had become politicized.

Boni Mobali, a software engineer from Congo, has lived in South Africa since 2018. In February 2020, his one-year skilled visa expired while he was working at a tech startup in Johannesburg. His visa renewal application was rejected. Mobali, whose wife is a South African citizen, has also struggled to get a spousal visa. He now runs a small shop in Johannesburg, repairing mobile phones and computers and dealing with software-related issues.

“The issue of visas in South Africa has become politicized due to the rise in anti-migrant campaigns by politicians,” Mobali told Rest of World, “I am a tech expert, but my talent is going to waste just like that.” He still hopes for a breakthrough with his spousal visa with the help of immigration lawyers.

Source: Rest of World

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