The Zimbabwean government says it has put in place a range of measures to help Zimbabweans returning from South Africa. But many say they are battling to make ends meet.
Faced with the expiry of their immigration documents in June, many Zimbabweans in South Africa have decided to return to Zimbabwe. In 2021, the South African government decided not to renew the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit and gave the 180,000 ZEP holders a year grace ending 31 December 2022. It then gave an extension until 30 June 2023.
The Union of Zimbabwean Educators and the Politeness Foundation say returning Zimbabweans are struggling to pay school fees.
Totamirepi Tirivavi, Deputy Director Family and Social Protection and Commissioner for Refugees in the Ministry of Public Service Labour and Social Welfare, said the government is ready to receive its returning citizens.
“I would like to advise my fellow Zimbabweans who are likely to be affected by the non renewal of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) that we are putting in some measures to make sure that you do not fall into double jeopardy. As you come into the country the government has already mobilised and put in place different ministries that provide services that you require as you enter the country. This includes the Ministry of Health for screening any communicable diseases, the Department of Civil Registration for issuing of birth certificates and IDs, the Department of Social Development that will be dealing with unaccompanied minors or elderly people and the Ministry of Education will assess the children and put in appropriate grades and where possible the government may assist in paying tuition fees,” said Tirivavi.
He said ministry staff throughout the country, including in villages, would offer assistance to the returnees.
Asked about how many people had been helped and what the budget was for assistance, Tirivavi said he did not have numbers.
He said returning Zimbabweans should check contacts on the ministry’s website or call the the ministry at +263 242 703 711/4.
But Jack Mutsvairo, chairperson of the Union of Zimbabwean Educators Western Cape, said the government’s statements were “mere rhetoric”.
“We have so far not come across any returnee who has received any help from the Zimbabwean government … Returning Zimbabweans are struggling to reestablish themselves in the country,” he said.
Polite Mbowa, founder of the Politeness Foundation, said last December the foundation had assisted 20 needy families repatriate to Matabeleland South Province, Zimbabwe.
She said most returnees could not afford to pay school fees. “Most of these people really need a support system from the government, especially regarding school fees. Some of these people will come back into South Africa trying to work for the family but it does not help very much.”
Clarer Phiri and her husband came to South Africa in 2008 and have held various Zimbabwean special permits since 2009. Phiri’s husband was working at a hotel in Cape Town and she was a child minder but in 2020 during the Covid pandemic they both lost their jobs.
After the announcement that the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit would not be extended, they decided to return to Zimbabwe in November.
Phiri is struggling to pay fees for her grade 4 child at a school in Marondera, 100km east of Harare. School fees for a term are US$70 (about R1,270) which she says she cannot afford.
“I am pleading with anyone in Zimbabwe to assist me kick start a project that may help me raise school fees,” said Phiri.
Chido Gumbo from Nyanga, outside Rusape, is also struggling to pay school fees for her two children – one in Early Childhood Development and the other in grade 6. The fee is US$20 (about R363) per term per child. She returned to Zimbabwe last December after working in South Africa since 2009, because she had lost her job as a domestic worker. She has no job in Zimbabwe.
Gumbo’s husband is also in Zimbabwe and also unemployed.
She has had to make arrangements with the school authorities to let the children attend lessons while looking for piece jobs. Like Phiri, she has not received any help from the government.
The children do not get food at school. Gumbo has started growing maize using the “timba ugute” farming method (using hoes) on a small piece of land next to her home.
“Only this season they [the children] carry cooked maize cobs for lunch,” said Gumbo.