South Africa faces largest exodus as Zimbabweans open up as permit expiry date looms

Evans Mahembe came to South Africa to look for a brighter future. Now, it feels like he is taking a step backward if he has to move with his family back to Zimbabwe. Picture: Eveline Gerritsen
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Cape Town – A country which was once looked at as a place of refuge and possible safe haven for Zimbabwean nationals, is gearing up for what is expected to be one of the largest exodus of Zimbabweans this year.

This follows a directive by Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi stating that the six-month extension of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEP) would be the last extension, bringing the ZEPs to an end come June 30.

According to the “Country Report South Africa: Complementary pathways and the Zimbabwean Dispensation Project” authored by UCT associate professor Dr Fatima Khan and UCT’s refugee rights unit, this will impact 178000 holders of the temporary protection permit.

The permits were due to expire on December 31, 2022, prior to the extension granted.

The ZEPs were the government’s temporary response to the large numbers of Zimbabweans entering the country from 2008 due to economic and political precarity, placing strain on the asylum-seeker system.

At the time, the Musina refugee reception office on the Zimbabwean border was receiving more than 1 000 asylum-seeker applications daily.

On September 2, 2010, the South African government announced the Dispensation Zimbabwean Project (DZP) permit lasting four years, which was extended for four years in August 2014, and renamed the Zimbabwean Special Permit (ZSP).

Another extension was granted for three years, ending in December 2021, with the permit now re-branded as the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP).

The grace period given until June 30, 2023 was to allow for ZEP holders to apply for alternate status in South Africa, Dr Khan noted.

According to the paper, the 2008 crisis in Zimbabwe emerged due to state violence by the Zimbabwean ruling party Zanu-PF, which saw opponents and dissidents persecuted.

With a general election scheduled for 2023, Zimbabweans feel that the decision to end the permit was largely political for numerous reasons, including gaining support among South Africans over its staunch position of foreign migration into the country.

Zimbabweans who have spent over a decade in South Africa, opened up about the uncertainties over the future and what would await them in Zimbabwe.

Grassy Park resident and painter Nicholas Mukalela, 47, came to South Africa in 2009. Mukalela said his decision to leave was due to how expensive it had been to simply live in Zimbabwe.

The father of five was later joined by his wife, who works as a domestic worker, in 2011.

“In Zimbabwe, I was doing my own business. I was buying and selling tyres. Things were very tough. There was nothing good there. That’s why I decided to come here. I first came alone and then I called my wife to come here so that she can help me with some other stuff.”

In Zimbabwe, his two children, 14 and 10, are still attending school and are cared for by his sister-in-law. He has been working in construction since arriving in the country, specialising in painting and carpentry.

Mukalela sought legal advice to see if there are any options available which would allow him to stay in South Africa.

“It is very expensive to talk with the lawyer but I just do it because I’ve got no other option. Because I want to be here for now because things in my country are not yet right. It’s very difficult. Even if I go back there, my children, I don’t think they’re going to manage, for them to go to school,” Mukalela said.

“People they are fighting, they are killing each other. The politics there are not good. So what I am trying to do is, I just want to make my children grow (up).”

Forty-seven-year-old Grassy Park resident and painter Nicholas Mukalela came to South Africa in 2009. Picture: Eveline Gerritsen

A Cape Town nail technician, Rufaro said some Zimbabweans have already started leaving as more countries open up following the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said Zimbabweans have been paying a lot of money for the renewal of permits over the years. Some had failed to make the payment, resulting in a non-renewal, but they remained in the country.

“People are not just going to walk out of here. Their lives are here and because other people are already living without documents, they’ll be like, ‘I’ll just be like the next person so I’ll also stay’.”

The cheapest way to leave would be by bus, with operators expected to hike up prices far over 100% in anticipation of the larger number of travellers. Buses with trailers would allow some to haul a few essential belongings back home.

“As much as we want to sell the things, half of the people won’t buy it and for me to buy other things there, I can’t buy a bed in US dollars when I have rand. It’s next to nothing.

“When I go to Zim, with R50 000, it will not even last me two months because it’s nothing when I give a rand, it’s next to nothing. So that’s also a thing people will consider, how are we going to go home.”

A Cape Town nail technician, Rufaro said some Zimbabweans have already started leaving as more countries open up following the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Eveline Gerritsen

Evans Mahembe, 40, arrived in South Africa in 2010. As a supporter of the opposition party, attacks were rampant.

Mahembe was self-employed. During the drought, he would buy maize and other essential items and resell it in other areas. However, this work was seasonal.

Upon arrival, Mahembe stayed with 4-5 people in a one-bedroom place in Grassy Park, and he has been working in construction, primarily as a plasterer, since then. After two years, his wife and two children, aged 9 and 14, joined him in the country. His wife works as a domestic worker, and children attend schools in South Africa.

“First, at that time in South Africa, it was the World Cup. There was an opportunity to do jobs. Second, the rate was better than the pula so it was an easy option to be here. That time, yes.”

He said leaving would be most challenging for his children who had been educated and lived most of their lives in South Africa.

Mahembe said the number of Zimbabweans leaving for South Africa continues to increase.

“What you must be saying or discussing is what can be done, as in how can the government spread the word (of leaving) to avoid hate speech, xenophobia and the attacks.

“South African people are the ones who own SA, you can’t be fighting for their land. They can just do whatever they want, throw us that way, left right (and) centre but all I’m praying for is that it’s done in a smooth way. Just because when there is a lot of noise, people are going to be hurt.”

Mahembe graduated with a diploma in business management, however, he was not able to use his skills both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He said many Zimbabweans were highly educated but due to not having the correct documents, would take whatever work they could find.

One of the main reasons why Zimbabweans turn to South Africa is to provide for their families, with the money earned used for food and schooling in Zimbabwe.