Zimbabweans in SA fear attacks as permits expire; rumours rife locals plan to chase them out of homes

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By The Citizen

“It is a shame that most people do not understand that we cannot simply go back to Zimbabwe, because economically and politically nothing is right there. So to hear people becoming excited about chasing us away is very concerning.

Zimbabweans living and working on the North Coast on the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) fear possible xenophobic attacks or hate crimes against them come the end of June, following the announcement that their permits will not be renewed.

The Courier spoke to more than 20 Zimbabweans who expressed concern over the lack of awareness and explanation about the non-renewal of ZEP, making them feel unsafe.

One Zimbabwean woman, who works as a cleaner in Umhlali, said: “It is easy for people who just don’t like foreigners to attack us and they are always looking for reasons to do so. So it’s not only ZEP holders who are anxious, but all of us.”

The 40-year-old woman lives with her two children in a rented house in Thembeni. She has been living in South Africa since 2011 and said both her children were born in South Africa.

“They know no other life but here,” she said.

The exemption permit system was first introduced in 2009 as part of the “Dispensation of Zimbabweans” project, which allowed about 250 000 Zimbabweans unlawfully residing in the country to formalise their status.

The permits allow them to live, work, and study in South Africa.

The system was subsequently extended and renamed as the Zimbabwean Special Permit in 2014 and then the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit in 2017.


Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are estimated to be in South Africa without permits and with ZEP not renewed, more are expected to stay illegally.

Another ZEP holder, a 56-year-old woman who supports her family through street vending in the KwaDukuza central business district, has been living in Ntshawini township for the past 13 years and said she was anxious about her future.

She and her family are now left with no option but to prepare to return to Zimbabwe.

“We will have to save whatever little we have and accept that we will have to go back home. Only God knows how my family and I will survive because I came here searching for better opportunities to support my family. I am extremely stressed.”

Another Zimbabwean who has lived in Lindelani township since the age of 20, said he knew little about his birth country.

“Being forced to return would mean starting a completely new life against my will,” he said.

A 41-year-old Zimbabwean construction worker from Groutville who has been living here for 12 years said rumours were rife that locals would chase them from their homes once the permit was no longer valid.

“It is a shame that most people do not understand that we cannot simply go back to Zimbabwe, because economically and politically nothing is right there. So to hear people becoming excited about chasing us away is very concerning.

“I am prepared to go home, but will try again to come to South Africa legally.”

Despite the fears, they said they had not experienced xenophobic victimisation on the North Coast before and remained hopeful that it would not be the case.

According to Trading Economic estimates, the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe averaged 5.62% from 1982 until 2021, reaching an all-time high of 10.80% in 1982 and a record low of 4.17% in 2004.

Several organisations have expressed concern over the decision, including the national trade association for the hospitality industry, FEDHASA.

National chairperson Rosemary Anderson said the impact on some businesses would be significant. Apart from logistical considerations, she said the humanitarian implications for staff members also had to be considered.

“Thousands of legal Zimbabwean permit holders have been living and working in South Africa for many years, and many have South African families and children.”

Anderson said forcibly removing a few hundred thousand legal Zimbabwean permit holders who have built their lives in South Africa will not resolve the country’s unemployment crisis.

A court application challenging the Home Affairs decision, which will impact more than 170 000 permit holders, was brought before the Pretoria High Court on April 11 by the Helen Suzman Foundation and Zimbabwe Immigration Federation.

Home Affairs minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi said so far few Zimbabwean nationals had applied for visas.

The department urged all affected Zimbabwean nationals to make use of this opportunity to apply for visas and not wait until the last minute as there will be no further permit extensions.

Based on the concerns raised, Saps was asked if they were prepared to combat possible xenophobic attacks arising from the termination of the ZEP system.

They had not responded at the time of going to print.