South African human rights organisations say scrapping Zimbabwe special permits will cause humanitarian crisis





Nearly 180 000 Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) holders living in South Africa face deportation at the end of the year if they are unable to find an alternative permission-of-stay.

By Tariro Washinyira for GroundUp

Most ZEP holders are unlikely to qualify for the critical skills list published on 2 February 2022 by the Minister of Home Affairs.

They say the grace period cabinet announced in November last year is too short for them to uproot their lives. The ZEP was introduced in 2017, replacing a series of predecessor permits that had regularised Zimbabweans living in South Africa since 2010.

A number of ZEP holders said the announcement that the permits will be scrapped is already creating headaches for them, despite a directive sent out by Home Affairs to banks, schools and employers. Some banks are already refusing to replace lost bank cards; some traffic departments are refusing to renew driver’s licences, they say. People also worry that they won’t be able to claim their provident funds, their UIF and work benefits after 31 December 2022.

Lawyers for Human rights (LHR) wrote a letter endorsed by 49 human rights organisations to the Department of Home Affairs on 13 December in an attempt to address the humanitarian and numerous other implications for permit holders of the scrapping of the ZEP.

The letter asks questions about the mechanisms in place to deal with the implications for ZEP holders. Months later, Home Affairs has not responded.

“Zimbabwe remains a country in turmoil and continues to experience serious economic and political challenges, as well as violence,” the letter states.

“Given that this special dispensation covers a time span of over a decade, many ZEP holders have built their families, lives, and homes in South Africa. Estimates indicate that up to half a million children will be affected by this decision, resulting in severe psychological impact as a result of uprooting their lives in South Africa and exposing them to trauma and suffering in Zimbabwe, thereby undermining the best interests of the child principle enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.”

“ZEP scheme was implemented by [Home Affairs], with the aim of creating a record of Zimbabweans who had, until then, been living in South Africa undocumented, granting them an amnesty, and regularising undocumented Zimbabwean nationals living in South Africa.

“The implementation of the ZEP scheme further alleviated the burden placed on the asylum system … The vast majority of ZEP holders would have been entitled to either refugee status or some kind of humanitarian protection in any event.”

“We are concerned that the above decision is contrary to [the department’s] initial, constructive initiative to address its backlog. It will more than likely significantly increase the category of undocumented persons in South Africa, undermining work that [Home Affairs] has undertaken in the past ten years to regularise undocumented Zimbabwean nationals living in South Africa.”

Sharon Ekambaram, LHR Manager for Refugee and Migrants Rights Programme, said, “We are collecting testimonies and experiences from ZEP holders.”

James Chapman, Head of Advocacy and Legal Advisor at the Scalabrini Centre, said that although the decision taken was within the powers of the Minister of Home Affairs, the decision still needed to be reasonable, just and administratively fair.

Scalabrini is taking instructions from a number of ZEP holders who are facing extreme difficulties. He said the requests vary from wanting permanent residency, extension of the ZEP, and help with applications for low-skills permits.

Outlining some of the implications of the ZEP not being renewed, Chapman said, “Families would be separated. There would be children accessing school and remaining in the country, but parents no longer able to stay because the ZEP is no longer in place.”

“There is a whole range of services that could well be compromised that were accessible before … For instance, during Covid there was an extension of the relief of the stress grants to asylum seekers and ZEP holders, but if you cease to be a ZEP holder that kind of grant would no longer be accessible.”

“Scalabrini has already begun to engage the government on the issue and will continue to do so to look at the ZEP decision and alternatives available to ZEP holders,” said Chapman.

Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the department had sent individual letters to approximately 178 142 Zimbabweans. It had also circulated a directive to banks, employers, academic institutions and other relevant stakeholders.

He said Home Affairs had received about 7 000 queries and responded to 2 500 to date.

“The Zimbabwean nationals are expected to migrate to one or other visas provided for in the Immigration Act. The Minister has set up a special team which is currently undergoing further training to deal with the expected influx of the applications and VFS Global has been instructed to prioritise the applications of the Zimbabwean nationals,” said Qoza.