Tens of thousands of Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa who were facing deportation when their work permits expire at the end of June have been given a temporary reprieve after South African authorities extended the deadline on Thursday.
About 178,000 holders of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit, an immigration permit issued in 2010 to Zimbabweans who had migrated to South Africa, now have until the end of December this year to apply for other visas and waivers to continue working in the country.
Many Zimbabweans, some undocumented, are living in South Africa, with a significant influx recorded following the 2008 political and economic upheaval in Zimbabwe that resulted in many fleeing to their southern African neighbor.
Many faced deportation as they have struggled to obtain work visas due to a combination of factors including glitches in the online application system, administrative delays and backlogs in the issuing of all visas, and the removal of some of their occupations from the country's scarce skills list.
Zimbabwe continues to face economic strife that has led to rising unemployment, higher food prices and a crumbling currency.
Announcing the decision, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the department has been receiving between 1,000 and 1,500 daily applications for visas and waivers from Zimbabweans looking to extend their stay in South Africa.
“The minister took into consideration the said factors, including (to a certain extent) submissions received from the affected Zimbabwean nationals, relevant officials of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and other interested parties,” said Motsoaledi’s department in a statement.
Under the extension, holders of the ZEP may not be arrested, ordered to leave the country or be detained for not having a valid exemption certificate.
Some civil society groups had taken the South African government to court to force the department to extend the deadline and afford applicants more time to obtain the legal documents.
“The Zimbabwe Community in SA welcomes this extension and understands that this period must be hastily used by our community to migrate to the mainstream work permits,” said Zimbabwe Community in South Africa chairman Nicholas Mabhena.
Mabhena said Zimbabwean nationals affected by the permits included people who had lived in South Africa long before the permits were issued in 2010, having resided and worked under a different immigration regime.
These include teachers, general workers, mechanics, domestic workers and gas station attendants who are financially supporting their families back home.
“These 178,000 people we are referring to are documented migrants who are economically active, and some stand to lose their jobs along with their benefits if they can no longer work in South Africa,” Mabhena told The Associated Press.
He said the departure of so many Zimbabweans from South Africa would have economic consequences back in Zimbabwe, as they were “keeping the economy running” due to the monthly remittances that they send back home.
Zimbabweans will vote in national elections on August 23 which have already been marked by allegations of violence and intimidation against opposition supporters by the ruling ZANU-PF government.
The Zimbabwean Embassy in South Africa said this week close to 10,000 Zimbabweans had registered to receive assistance to return to Zimbabwe at the end of June, when the permits had been due to expire.