Why is South Africa not renewing 160,000 Zimbabwean work permits?

On Tuesday, a South African court will decide if thousands of Zimbabweans can stay back in the country or face possible deportation.

Cape Town, South Africa – Thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa face an uncertain future and possible deportation before a June 2023 expiration of their work permits, following an announcement by the home government last year that there will be no extension.

*Matilda Tebogo (not her real name), a 35-year-old shopkeeper, says she is stressed and nervous about what lies ahead for her and her family. The Zimbabwean national has been living and working in Cape Town for more than 10 years under the Zimbabwe Extension Permit (ZEP) scheme.

Her two children are settled in school and South Africa is home for them, she told Al Jazeera.

“Everything is unclear and we don’t know what to do,” she said. “My children know nothing about Zimbabwe. It will be difficult to leave.”

She and thousands of others are beneficiaries of the Zimbabwean Extension Permit (ZEP) scheme instituted in 2017.

The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit Holders Association (ZEPHA) says the number of permit holders is about 160,000, but each person has an average of three to four dependents, effectively putting the numbers of those affected at an estimated figure of close to two million Zimbabweans.

What is ZEP?

Circa 2008, thousands of Zimbabweans migrated to South Africa in search of better opportunities due to economic woes in the country of their birth.

Thousands of supporters of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, also said their lives were in danger for voting against Zimbabwe’s governing party ZANU-PF – which has been in power since independence in 1980 – and sought asylum in the country.

  • The surge in immigration led to South Africa introducing the Dispensation of Zimbabwean Permit, DZP, to legalise Zimbabweans living and working in the country in 2009.
  • In 2014, the DZP was renamed to the Zimbabwe Special Permit. The name changed again three years later to Zimbabwe Exemption Permit or ZEP.
  • In September 2022, the Department of Home Affairs extended the permit which was due to expire on December 31, for a further six months to June 30, 2023.
  • This was after groups like ZEPHA challenged this decision and the government granted a 12-month grace period.

What have the reactions been so far?

  • Advocate Simba Chitando, ZEPHA’s legal representative, filed court papers in October 2022. “If the permits expire, it will be “a disaster for the country’s economy”, he told Al Jazeera.
  • Another human rights organisation, the Helen Suzman Foundation, HSF, also challenged the government’s decision not to renew the permit, saying, “Those who have scrupulously observed South Africa’s laws in order to live and work here under the ZEP cannot have such permits terminated without fair process, good reason and a meaningful opportunity to regularise their status.”
  • HSF and the Zimbabwe Immigration Federation Consortium for Refugees will be joining ZEPHA at the Pretoria High Court.
  • The hospitality sector is one of the largest employers of ZEP permit holders in the country. In a statement, the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA), the sector’s largest trade union, said the non-renewal of permits would have negative consequences for the industry and “cause trauma and pain to people whose only sin was to legally look for a better life for themselves and their families”.

What happens next?

  • Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has repeatedly said there will be no further extension. “This is the end of the permit. We have written a letter to all the permit holders we also sent SMS to their phones and also put it on the website to inform people that the permit will not be extended. We think we have done enough and we have explained this.”
  • The ZEP holders are now pinning their hopes on the country’s judicial system. Many migrants see it as a David vs Goliath battle as the Pretoria High Court in Gauteng will have different legal experts from several migrant organisations battle it out with the South African government.
  • A ruling will be given on Tuesday. “We trust the court process, we put our faith in the courts,” Chitando said.
  • In December, Motsoaledi told local media that 10,000 people have actually applied to legalise their stay in the country under a new scheme that is yet to be introduced.
  • The government has also been under pressure from anti-migration vigilante groups like Operation Dudula and right-wing political parties like the Patriotic Alliance who want illegal migrants to return to their countries of birth.

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