The recently announced amnesty for Zimbabweans who either do not have the correct - or any - temporary residence permit or who instead even have false South African documents, is both good news and bad news.
The facts of the matter are as follows. Home Affairs will issue a work, business or study permit to any affected Zimbabwean who submits documents to Home Affairs to show he or she was working, self-employed or studying, as the case may be, in South Africa, prior to 30 May 2010. These permits will be issued for four years. A critical starting point in the exercise is that the applicant must be in possession of a valid Zimbabwean passport. The Department has also repeatedly given the assurance that no questions will be asked about how the false documents were obtained - they must just be handed over to the Department. The Department has also repeatedly stated that no employee, employer, self-employed person, student and/or learning institution, will be prosecuted if they take advantage of the amnesty process. That process includes reporting at any regional office of Home Affairs where the applicant must complete a short application form and be fingerprinted to check for criminal records. And the Department is aiming to process each applications in about 10 days. And there will be no Department fee.
This will be good news for many Zimbabweans and their South African employers and other affected persons. It is also good news for many sectors of the economy representing as it does, the formal acquisition of some very competent people into the economy and at no cost to the country.
Can there be a downside to this? Regrettably, yes, and this manifests itself comes in various ways. The biggest is that whereas the stated logic for the amnesty is to help our neighbours, and for South Africa to try and get its own house in order - the closing date of 31 December 2010, makes little or no sense. The media has quoted the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, as saying - somewhat confusingly - that in the first week "6000 applications had been received" of which "1100 permits had been awarded" and that there had been "208 amnesty applications."
Even if we assume that there were in fact 6000 amnesty applications in a week, there are only 12 weeks left in the year. At this rate, this would mean 72000 applications - assuming massively that the Zimbabwean authorities can deliver on the demand for passports - by the end of the year. Significantly, the Deputy Minister said that informed studies have estimated that there about 1,5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. We also know from the UNHCR that in 2009 almost a quarter of a million Zimbabweans applied for asylum in South Africa. Who knows how many Zimbabweans will need amnesty-driven permits. But there appears to be a gap of epic proportions between the numbers making their way through Home Affairs and the number of Zimbabweans supposedly in the country. And if a significant percentage of Zimbabweans remain undocumented or falsely documented, at the end of the process in December, what becomes of the rationale for the amnesty. Surely, if we are trying to get our own Population Register purged of false documents and to save the refugee system from grinding to a halt, imposing an arbitrary deadline which cannot deliver the stated outcome, makes no sense!
Another problem is that the Department is only issuing three types of permits as part of the amnesty. It's a work-, study- or business permit - or nothing. What if you are the spouse of the Zimbabwean employee and you have a false document courtesy of your employed spouse? No provision appears to have been made for this scenario.
It also does not help that the Department has not gone public via the Government Gazette setting out the rules, the forms, the requirements and the time frames.
A further Achilles-heel of the project is that there is a significant constituency that is caught between a rock and hard place, by this amnesty. These are the people with false documents who have also built up their whole lives around these false identities. Getting their Home Affairs and State-based documentation in order (eg SARS etc) is but the tip of the iceberg for them. They have property registered on that false ID number, pensions, insurance, bank accounts, tenders, contracts, police clearances etc. Some may even have professional qualifications with those false names and ID numbers. How are the banks and FIC to react to their client coming forward and saying that he or she is not who they said they were as part of the FICA processes etc. And let's not even mention RICA! The fear has to be that for many of these people, the amnesty just does not offer a viable solution. Too many questions have to be answered by too many other bodies in too short a time for them to decide to take the plunge and come out of the woodwork.
It goes without saying that the amnesty is a positive move. But the Department appears to have taken a leap of faith here without doing some critical homework.