There are nearly 200 000 Zimbabweans in South Africa who are living on borrowed time.
They are in the country on a special visa, the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP). This visa category was introduced more than a decade ago to accommodate an influx of refugees who were fleeing political persecution and economic devastation in Zimbabwe.
But late last year, South Africa’s home affairs department, amid rising Afrophobic sentiment among South African citizens, announced that it would not renew the ZEPs. This decision gives affected Zimbabweans a “grace period” until the end of this year to leave the country or risk being deported — unless they can find another visa to apply for.
Among their number is Thenjiwe Mhlanga*, who has been in South Africa since 2010. She is married to a Zimbabwean man who is a permanent residence holder, and they have children together.
As things stand, she will have to leave the country by 31 December this year, and leave her family behind — as well as all the unemployment benefits that she currently receives. She is hoping to apply for a spousal permit through her husband’s permanent residency. Although she qualifies, she is unsure whether her application will succeed, given the inefficiency and corruption that is endemic to South Africa’s visa application process.
Rufaro Gwatidzo*, a distance learner who has lived in South Africa since he was six, does not qualify under any other visa categories. He believes himself to be South African and cannot imagine a life for himself in Zimbabwe.
Although stressed about his future away from all he has ever known, Gwatidzo said: “I’m not oblivious of the fact that when in Rome one must do as the Romans. And if they don’t want you, it’s not fair to impose on them because of your own personal needs and wants.”
Courtroom battle looms
There is one institution that may yet overturn the government’s decision not to renew the ZEP: South Africa’s courts. A legal challenge is being prepared by the Zimbabwean Exemption Holders Association, on the grounds that the decision was “irrational”.
Leading this challenge is advocate Simba Chitando. His detractors describe him as a maverick of Johnny Cochrane proportions — not necessarily a compliment in the legal profession. Chitando is confident that the courts will overturn the government’s decision to let the ZEPs lapse.
“The minister of home affairs believes cancelling 180 000 ZEP holders from the job market would solve unemployment in the country and increase jobs for South African citizens. The truth is it will do the opposite,” Chitando said.
“I would advise Zimbabweans, ZEP holders, and sympathetic South African nationals, to be calm in the face of this crisis and allow the court process to run its course. There are many who are lobbying the government to change their obviously bad decision.”
Not everyone is convinced that a legal challenge will work — especially if it is led by Chitando, who has close links with Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF. His uncle, Winston Chitando, is Zimbabwe’s minister of mines and Chitando is the head of Zanu-PF’s Sandton branch in Johannesburg.
For the many Zimbabweans who fled political persecution, this is an unwelcome connection. In a WhatsApp group organised by Zimbabweans to keep abreast of the ZEP court matters, one person said: “Tirimuno muSouth Africa pamusaka pavo [we are here because of them (Zanu-PF)]. Can we trust that they’ll even do a decent job?”
Others fear that Chitando’s Zanu-PF links will make the case political, and agitate the South African government, which will in turn “punish” Zimbabweans with even more stringent visa rules no matter what the courts say.
A court date has not been set yet.
While ZEP holders wait for the legal process to take its course, many are already dealing with the fallout from the decision. Some banks, although aware of the grace period, are refusing to replace lost bank cards or open accounts and some traffic departments will not renew the driving licences of ZEP holders.
Those who are looking to apply for another visa will have to navigate South Africa’s corrupt application process. A 2016 report by the Corruption Watch watchdog organisation described a “cartel-like” network of officials, runners and facilitators who prey on those seeking assistance.
Ironically, for some ZEP holders, this corruption may be their only hope of staying in the country legally. “If kana zvanetsa, and things become difficult, I will just ‘lose’ my passport and start again. I just want to take care of my family. It’s like they want to push you into doing criminal acts to survive,” said one ZEP holder, who asked to have his name withheld.
South Africa’s Home Affairs Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.