SA: Scrapping Zim permit will cause humanitarian crisis, activists warn

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JOHANNESBURG: Nearly 180 000 Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) holders living in South Africa face deportation at the end of this year if they are unable to find an alternative permits that will allow them to remain in the country.

Most ZEP holders are unlikely to qualify for the critical skills list published on February 2 2022 by Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

They say the grace period the Cabinet announced in November last year was too short for them to uproot their lives. The ZEP was introduced in 2017, replacing a series of earlier permits to regularise Zimbabweans living in South Africa since 2010.

A number of ZEP holders told GroundUp the scrapping of permits was already creating headaches for them, despite a directive sent out by the department of home affairs to banks, schools and employers to allow the holders to continue with their banking, education and work, respectively.

For example, some banks are already refusing to replace lost bank cards and some traffic departments are refusing to renew drivers’ licences, they say. People also worry that they will not be able to claim their provident funds, unemployment insurance funds and work benefits after December 30 2022.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) wrote a letter endorsed by 49 human rights organisations to the department on December 13 2021 in an attempt to address the humanitarian and numerous other implications of the scrapping of the ZEP.

The letter asked questions about the mechanisms in place to deal with the implications for the ZEP holders. Almost three months later, the department has not responded.

“Zimbabwe remains a country in turmoil and continues to experience serious economic and political challenges, as well as violence,” the letter noted.

“Given that this special dispensation covers a time span of over a decade, many ZEP holders have built their families, lives and homes in South Africa. Estimates indicate that up to 500 000 children will be affected by this decision, resulting in a severe psychological impact as a result of uprooting their lives in South Africa and exposing them to trauma and suffering in Zimbabwe, thereby undermining the best interests of the child principle enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.

“The ZEP scheme was implemented by [the department of home affairs], with the aim of creating a record of Zimbabweans who had, until then, been living in South Africa undocumented, granting them an amnesty and regularising undocumented Zimbabwean nationals living in South Africa.

“The implementation of the ZEP scheme further alleviated the burden placed on the asylum system … The vast majority of the ZEP holders would have been entitled to either refugee status or some kind of humanitarian protection in any event.

The letter continued:

We are concerned that the above decision is contrary to [the department’s] initial, constructive initiative to address its backlog. It will more than likely significantly increase the category of undocumented persons in South Africa, undermining work that [the department] has undertaken in the past ten years to regularise undocumented Zimbabwean nationals living in South Africa.


Sharon Ekambaram, LHR manager for refugee and migrants rights programme, told GroundUp: “We are collecting testimonies and experiences from the ZEP holders.”

James Chapman, head of advocacy and legal adviser at the Cape Town-based Scalabrini Centre, said that although the decision taken was within the powers of the minister, this still needed to be “reasonable, just and administratively fair”.

Chapman said the centre, which offers specialised services to South Africans, migrants and refugees, was taking instructions from a number of the ZEP holders who are facing extreme difficulties. He said the requests varied from requests for permanent residency, the extension of the ZEP,and help with applications for low-skills permits.

Outlining some of the implications of the ZEP not being renewed, Chapman said: “Families would be separated. There would be children accessing school and remaining in the country, but parents no longer able to stay because the ZEP is no longer in place.

“There is a whole range of services that could well be compromised that were accessible before. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic there was an extension of the relief of the stress grants to asylum seekers and the ZEP holders, but if you cease to be a ZEP holder that kind of grant would no longer be accessible.

Chapman said:

Scalabrini has already begun to engage government on the issue and will continue to do so to look at the ZEP decision and alternatives available to the holders.

Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the department had sent individual letters to about 178 142 Zimbabweans. It had also circulated a directive to banks, employers, academic institutions and other relevant stakeholders to allow the holders to continue receiving services.

He said the department had received about 7 000 queries and responded to 2 500 to date.

“The Zimbabwean nationals are expected to migrate to one or other visas provided for in the Immigration Act. The minister has set up a special team which is currently undergoing further training to deal with the expected influx of the applications and VFS Global [through which permits applications are submitted] has been instructed to prioritise the applications of the Zimbabwean nationals,” said Qoza.