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The Predicament of Zimbabwean Exemption Permit Holders in South Africa

Anyone who claims to be a Pan-Africanist would be conflicted with the disposal of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Africans who are genuinely seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families.

On the 25th of November, the South African Cabinet announced that the visa policy which grants Zimbabweans special permits to stay and work in South Africa, also known as the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEP), would not be renewed. The permit holders were given a 12-month grace period to migrate to the mainstream permits, without which they would be deported. This decision, which appears to many as a betrayal of Pan-African ideals, was predictable due to a series of events that took place prior to that announcement.

The policy of granting special permits to Zimbabweans was first introduced in 2009 by the then Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as a temporary solution to a growing refugee crisis related to Zimbabwe, but it took effect in 2010. This type of permit was called the Dispensation of Zimbabwean Project (DZP) and was meant to expire in 2014. Since they were neither renewable nor extendable, the South African Government had to introduce a new permit called the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation (ZSD) in 2014 to replace DZP. The ZSD regime lasted till 2017. Further negotiations resulted in the present contentious permit – the ZEP – introduced in the same year 2017.

A predictable decision

The announcement of a possible renewal of ZEP coincided with events that made the decision of the government predictable and inevitably skewed toward non-renewal. The first was the local government elections, where parties such as ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance used the anti-immigrant mantra as a campaigning strategy. The notable electoral gains by these new parties, especially in Johannesburg, most likely served as a barometer of the position taken by the government as far as foreigners are concerned. Moreover, the predicament brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic did not help as unemployment in South Africa kept rising. For many South Africans, the renewal of these permits meant that about 250, 000 Zimbabweans will still keep their jobs.

Second, before the announcement of the government’s decision on ZEP, a movement that identified itself as #PutSouthAfricansFirst explicitly announced that they would march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demonstrate against the renewal of ZEP. The movement claimed that they were not xenophobic but wanted the immigration law reformed. However, their understanding of reforms seems to be based on ejecting foreigners out of their country.

Third, a court case was lodged by a privileged and populist Zimbabwean lawyer, Simba Chitando, further fueling the resentment towards the renewal of ZEP. He tried to force the hand of the South African Government to grant permanent residency to ZEP holders who have been in the country for more than 10 years. The lawsuit was an exaggerated gesture of a few desperate permit holders led by an attention-seeking lawyer. While those who advocated a lawsuit did that on the belief that there are some facts beyond the legality of the matter that can be considered, such as the existential circumstances of those involved or the situation of Zimbabwean children born in South Africa, the court process was a counterproductive move that backfired against the holders of the permit. 

Salvaging the Pan-African Dream

Despite the current situation, there is still hope in South Africa’s politics. For instance, on 16 November 2021, about 9 days before the government’s decision, Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), in a media briefing. unapologetically denounced the xenophobic stance taken by the ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance. He categorically declared that he would never denounce/chase foreigners because when he sees a Nigerian or Ghanaian or a Zimbabwean, he sees himself. Malema pledged solidarity with the plight of Zimbabweans in particular and foreigners in general.

In other words, Malema is aware that the present predicament of South Africa cannot be solved by chasing foreigners, neither can it be blamed on them, and this is for a number of obvious reasons.

One, the initial number of those who were awarded the DZP permit was about 250, 000 in 2010; since then, no new recipients were added. As a result, the number started to drop for different reasons such as death, loss of employment etc. By the time ZEP was introduced in 2017, the number had shrunk to 180, 000 holders, which accounts for a 70, 000 drop in eight years. Due to the effects of the pandemic and the resulting economic difficulties, this number is more likely to have been drastically reduced far below 180, 000.  Among these holders, some are students, some have their own businesses, and some have jobs that are not even desirable to South African job-seekers, such as being domestic workers. Hence, the perception that foreigners, in this case, Zimbabweans, are standing in the way of South African job-seekers has no logical basis. Unfortunately, the general belief is that 250, 000 Zimbabweans are taking South African jobs, a myth propagated by opportunistic politicians. By indulging such myths, the government is playing the ostrich as it seeks to solve apartheid-inherited social injustices and current challenges by targeting communities of foreigners, most of whom are fellow Africans.

Two, these foreigners who seem disposable have worked for their host country and paid taxes for more than 10 years. They are not a burden but have been/become active members of the South African economic communities.

But most importantly, the suggestion of awarding permanent residency to the holders of this permit was not entirely unreasonable and was raised by many groups representing Zimbabweans. These groups raised this issue not as an order or command, or through a legal prerogative but as a suggestion entirely based on the discretion of the South African Government. All the representatives of the Zimbabwean community trusted the South African Government to decide which permits would be renewed and which holders qualify to migrate to other permits. Unfortunately, the humble demands of these representatives were overshadowed by a frivolous lawsuit. Consequently, the permits were not renewed, and even the grace period of 12 months might not be enough to allow most of the holders to migrate.

Ironically, the decision not to renew ZEP was made a few days after President Kenyatta’s visit to South Africa in which the leaders of the two countries expressed their commitment to upholding Pan-African ideals. However, anyone who claims to be a Pan-Africanist would be conflicted with the disposal of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Africans who are genuinely seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families.


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