South Africa’s decision to end a special dispensation that allows about 178,000 Zimbabweans to live and work in the country is being challenged in court by a civil rights group.
So-called Zimbabwe Exemption Permits were granted to the nation’s nationals who moved to South Africa before 2009. South Africa’s cabinet issued a statement in November last year saying the holders’ permission to stay in the country would expire on Dec. 31, but they would have a 12-month grace permit to apply for alternative permits under the usual immigration framework.
The Helen Suzman Foundation said it has filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, which was taken without public consultation.
Permit holders “will be put to a desperate choice: to remain in South Africa as undocumented migrants with all the vulnerability that attaches to such status or return to a Zimbabwe that, to all intents and purposes, is unchanged from the country they fled,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
“There are thousands of children who have been born in South Africa to ZEP holders during this time who have never even visited their parents’ country of origin.”
About 3 million of the 60 million people living in South Africa are migrants, according to the national statistics agency. Many of them are Zimbabweans, who were driven south by two decades of economic collapse and political repression, with the bulk of them undocumented because they didn’t apply for the special permits or weren’t eligible.
The presence of so many foreigners in South Africa has sparked resentment among some locals, who see them as competitors for scarce jobs and housing, and the country has been wracked by intermittent xenophobic violence. The cabinet agreed to end the exemption programme after the ruling African National Congress recorded its worst-ever electoral performance in a municipal vote last year.
“That South Africa’s ANC government is pandering to an orchestrated populist campaign of xenophobic scapegoating of foreigners, and specifically Zimbabweans, by canceling ZEPs should be deeply shaming,” said Tara O’Connor, executive director of London-based Africa Risk Consulting.
Takafavira Zhou, a political analyst at Great Zimbabwe University in the southeastern city of Masvingo, also said South Africa’s decision was ill-conceived, with Zimbabweans playing in import role in its economy and supporting their countrymen through remittances.
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