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Zimbabweans In South Africa – An amnesty travesty?

Photo by Duane Daws
Chris Watters

7th April 2014

By: Chris Watters

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So, for those approximately 230 000 Zimbabweans who are sitting with their 2010 ZDP permits, the truth will out and the waiting is at an end.  Cabinet has decided that “the permit holders [most of which permits expire in 2014] will be expected to re-apply for their permits in their country of origin”.

There has to be a suspicion that some of the logic of this decision lies in the fact that whereas these permits have been issued to persons who do not have the skills to qualify for ordinary work permits, their departure should free up an equivalent number of jobs, or thereabouts for South Africa’s unemployed. 

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“Creating” some 200 000 jobs at the stroke of a pen, as it were, should at the very least, count for something at the polls, in the minds of some un- or under-employed voters – no matter its impact on the economy or on hard pressed businesses – and how do 200 000 people queue for permits at the High Commission in Harare?

It may well be that some of these persons do not have formal skills to justify work permits. But as employers will tell you, work place appointments are also about experience, the required work ethic, levels of trust, inter-personal relationships, literacy, etc.  You can ‘command’ a free market economy only so much.

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But even so, life is just not that simple.  People’s motives for applying for the ZDP permits in the first place, are far more complex.  And importantly, the rules and conditions of the amnesty were never made clear to the general public.  The Department failed or refused to formally promulgate the process; instead it ‘legislated’ the amnesty process through a series of media releases and occasional notices on websites and at Home Affairs’ offices.  

Indicatively, anecdotal reports suggest that some people thought that they were required to change their existing permits simply because they were Zimbabwean.  Others people moved out of the refugee system, not because they were not deserving of refugee status, but because the promise of a four year permit that allowed them to work without restriction, was infinitely better than the indignities thrust on many asylum seekers having to renew permits every three months at the refugee offices.  And most employers understand “work permits”; many do not like asylum papers that are valid for three months only.

No-one was told that the permits would not be extendable or that, if they were, they would first have to leave the country.  In terms of the Immigration Act, there is only one work permit which cannot, on the face of it, be extended.  That is the intra-company transfer work permit.  Barring that all work permits and in fact all other temporary residence permits, can be extended.

Another relevant consideration was that Zimbabwe in 2009 and 2010, was in a very different situation to that which it is currently.  There was a government of national unity, the economy was improving and the human rights situation generally, was improving.  Today, in almost all respects, Zimbabwe is one again regressing in the wake of the shambles of the last elections – and ZANU-PF is once again very much in charge. 

This raises the very tricky issue of whether some of the ZDP permit holders will not need to avail themselves again of the refugee system in South Africa. 

There is nothing in the Refugees Act that prevents a person from applying or re-applying for refugee status especially should political and other relevant conditions back home have taken a turn for the worse since they left ‘home’.  This is a well-recognized principle of refugee law and such applications are known as “applications sur place”.  The matter becomes considerably more complicated given that contrary to the requirements of refugee law, the identities of former applicants for refugee status will have been disclosed to the Zimbabwean authorities by the Department of Home Affairs.

And finally, and no so inconsequentially for South Africa’s standing internationally [notwithstanding that it abstained in the UN General Assembly on the Crimean annexation vote along with its other BRICS partners], South Africa may find itself accused of designing what is in reality a mass expulsion.

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