Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has vowed to push ahead with the termination of the Zimbabwe exemption permits issued to asylum seekers, when they expire at the end of this month, despite “tremendous” pressure from the Zimbabwean government and lobby groups not to.
The exemption permits were granted to more than 250 000 Zimbabweans who were among the millions who poured out of Zimbabwe at the height of its political and economic crisis in 2008 and 2009, overwhelming the country’s refugee system.
The temporary measure was meant to regularise their presence in the country and allow them to access services such as banking.
South Africa’s Cabinet decided last month that it would not extend the permits when they expire on December 31.
Exemption permit holders will have to apply for mainstream visas under normal immigration laws before December 31 next year, or leave the country.
Motsoaledi says South Africa is facing huge pressure from the Zimbabwean government – which seemingly does not want its own citizens back – to withdraw the Cabinet directive.
And it is not alone in protesting against the termination.
Human rights groups have slammed the decision, with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies writing to Motsoaledi, asking him to rescind it on “purely humanitarian grounds”.
Zimbabwe remains a country in turmoil and continues to experience serious economic and political challenges and violence.
Exemption permit holders argue that they qualify for permanent residence on the basis that they have been in South Africa for more than a decade.
Advocate Simba Chitando, representing exemption permit holders, said he had instructions to continue with court action to have President Cyril Ramaphosa’s directive overturned.
“Our attention’s now focused on asserting exemption permit holders’ legal right to permanent residency in the Republic,” he said.
SA WON’T BE ABUSED
It is believed that the Zimbabwean government is concerned that it would not be able to cope with a large influx of returning citizens.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government fears that some of the returnees are former political activists who would strengthen resistance to the regime.
Motsoaledi revealed that South African government officials were facing pressure mainly from Zimbabwean politicians and diplomats in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Ramaphosa to change his mind.
He said the pressure seemed to be an attempt to get the South African government to abuse its own immigration laws.
“There’s an abuse of our systems and, if we don’t put our foot down, we’ll keep being abused forever. We’re not going to be forced to break our own laws in order to make someone else’s work easy.
We’re dealing with self-interest groups that don’t care about the wellbeing of Zimbabweans who, as exemption permit holders, can’t apply for any other visa, given the restrictions that were put in place.
SA’S IMMIGRATION SERVICE
He expressed anger about the fact that “people keep blaming the immigration services of South Africa, as if when one country creates a crisis, the country closest to it must respond by building the requisite capacity to deal with that crisis.
That’s the logic here.”
He added: “There’s also this [belief] that South Africa has abundant [resources] for everybody. That’s nonsense. No country has the capacity to accommodate everyone who has problems in the country they come from. In other words, when more and more [people] come, we must be able to hire more and our resources must expand. That’s not on.”
Motsoaledi’s hard-line stance comes at a time when illegal immigration has become a powerful political football in South Africa, with some parties using it as a major mobilising issue during the recent local government election.
THE 2008/09 INFLUX
Motsoaledi explained that the exemption permits were issued to people who were fleeing Zimbabwe between 2008 and 2009, because asylum centres were not designed to process the tens of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens who ended up overwhelming the system.
Some of those who applied were economic refugees who had no legitimate claim to political asylum status.
The refugee regime was only designed for a small number of people.
Motsoaledi pointed out that in 1998, the number of people who sought asylum in South Africa was 16 000, rising gradually to 45 000 in 2006.
“All of a sudden, in 2008, we had an influx of 200 000 and one refugee centre was [unable] to process those people. In 2009, there were a further 207 000, which meant that we had more than 400 000 people flooding in from Zimbabwe in just one year,” said Motsoaledi.
City Press was reliably informed by another senior official that the Zimbabwean government intended using Covid-19 measures, including stringent monitoring of curfew hours, as a way to discourage “those whom they deem ‘undesirable’” from returning to that country.
Some of these “undesirables” included former state intelligence and security operatives who fled the country after falling out of favour with the heavy-handed Zanu-PF government.
The official said:
The Zimbabwean government hunted down its own operatives and now they want South Africa to keep them because they’re afraid.
He added that many intelligence operatives had found homes in different organisations, including some NGOs that were leading protest action on behalf of exemption permit holders.
Motsoaledi said “special-interest groups” claiming to represent the interests of Zimbabweans affected by the termination of the exemption permits had turned out to be immigration lawyers whose businesses survived on expediting migration.
“If there’s no immigration in whatever form – legal or illegal – they can’t make a living, so they resort to pressurising the state.
Others make money as NGOs by claiming that they’re representing human rights and they get donor funding,” he explained.
He said many of those opposing the final termination of the permits did not understand that something that had been an extraordinary dispensation could not last forever, and that people who qualified and wished to apply for different kinds of visas were free to do so during the 12-month grace period that had been granted for that purpose.
“So how long must this special permit remain special? There were disadvantages for people who were on the exemption permit,” said the minister.
Motsoaledi said there were also disinformation campaigns encouraging Zimbabweans whose children who were born in South Africa to demand citizenship for their offspring.
“Parents are told that if they don’t do this, their children won’t be accepted in our schools. That’s just nonsense. All they need to do is go to the department of education and enquire.
“There’s nothing in law stating that when you’ve been in a country for a certain period, then that country is obligated to naturalise you. But here they want to make it an automatic right – and that’s what I’m resisting. We’re being pressurised into doing what other countries would never do.”
He said this would mean that the children of Zimbabweans who made use of Limpopo’s health services in huge numbers would be entitled to South African citizenship.
If you go to Musina Hospital [in Limpopo], 70% of the women giving birth there who came for health services are from Zimbabwe. If those children are born there, does this mean we must give them citizenship?