On the 31st of December, permits of almost 180 000 Zimbabwean expatriates who settled in South Africa will expire, leaving many of them vulnerable to deportation if they are unable to secure alternative permits by then.

The decision by Cabinet last December has been widely criticized and has thrown the lives of thousands of Zimbabwean families who settled in South Africa into disarray.

Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans risk loss of jobs, closure of bank accounts, repossession of cars and being separated from their loved ones.

Unwelcomed Neighbours shines a light on them and reflects on how the decision by the South African government affects ordinary people who sought refuge in their neighbouring country.

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Reporting by Jenni Evans, Tebogo Monama, Lenin Ndebele and Nicole McCain.

'This is going to cause chaos in South Africa': fear and court challenges loom over Zimbabwe Extension Permit cancellation

By Jenni Evans and Lenin Ndebele

Zimbabwean expatriates are scrambling to apply for a visa to continue living in South Africa after their Zimbabwe Extension Permits (ZEP) expired in December.

If they are unsuccessful, in some cases, an entire generation of children will be forced to relocate with their parents to a country they may never even have visited.

However, according to Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza, the agent VFS Global has only received 2 301 visa applications and 3 014 waiver applications from the exemption holders. A special team at the department is still working through these for final approval.

According to the records of the department, a total number of 178 412 Zimbabwean nationals were granted exemptions.

"It must however be noted that some of them did not renew their permits, and as such they lapsed. While others either migrated to other visas or left the country," said Qoza.

In November 2021, the department announced that the ZEP would not be extended again, and all holders of this special permit had until 31 December 2021 to apply for a visa to stay in South Africa.

The ZEP cancellation and requirement to apply for a new visa aligns with the department's review of all visas issued from as far back as 2004, but Zimbabweans are the only ones who have to reapply for a visa at the moment.

This appears to contradict the White Paper on International Migration, which painstakingly sets out the democratic South African government's commitment to undo the apartheid-era's preference for white immigrants and restricting permits to black migrants who were contributing to the country's cheap labour pool of mine and farm workers.  

Zimbabwean nationals arrived in a larger group than usual in South Africa around 2008, during a period of hyperinflation, food shortages, empty government coffers, and severe political uncertainty back home.

A government of national unity was eventually formed in 2009 between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe. Still, trust issues often saw it hit the rocks. So many in the country who had had enough of the constant anxiety and hardship, decided to leave.

After borders were declared during the various colonial wars, a long history began of miners, farmers and cross-border traders coming to South Africa.  

Around 40 000 white "Rhodesians" who did not want to live under a black government, known as "when wes", settled in South Africa after 1980, with few residency and work problems.

The two countries also have a shared recent history of supporting each other during the struggle against colonialism and the white governments that discriminated against black people. South Africa was heavily criticised for not speaking out on complaints of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

However, after the sudden swell of people applying for asylum or refugee status during the political and economic turmoil, in April 2009, Cabinet created the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project.

In an update in 2014, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, said this was a "significant gesture of support and solidarity" with Zimbabweans.

During the project, he said a total of 295 000 Zimbabweans had applied for the permit, and just over 245 000 had been issued. Those who were refused either had a criminal record, lacked a passport, or did not fulfil other requirements. The permit gave the holder the same rights as South Africans, except voting rights. In many cases, recipients handed in their asylum permits.

The introduction of the permit coincided with a horrific wave of xenophobia in South Africa. However, the government dismissed accusations of xenophobia, saying the attacks on people and shops were by "criminals''.

But anti-Zimbabwean sentiment appears to have resurfaced again, with Zimbabweans being accused of taking jobs that South Africans could be doing.

The permit allows Zimbabweans to work in South Africa and has offered a level of protection against harassment, but now there are worries that not qualifying for a visa could lead to great upheaval, in spite of years of working in and contributing to SA's economy.

The invitation to apply for a visa may sound positive to an outsider, but to Zimbabweans trying to get one, it is a nightmare, with horrifying consequences for those who fail.

"This is going to create a humanitarian disaster," lawyer Simba Chitango told News24.

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images (2008)

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Josphine Dhilwayo

In 2012, I came to South Africa just after completing my matric. There was nothing to do in Zimbabwe. I got my papers and came to look for work. It wasn't easy to find a job, but I finally found work at a very nice Xhosa family in Gugulethu.

I worked there for a year and then decided to move to Fish Hoek, where I started working for a cleaning company. It became my new home and I really enjoyed it. I fell in love, and in 2014 I gave birth to the most special princess – my daughter Sandra. But the happiest part of my life was being able to send money to my mother and siblings back home. I saved money to study, and I did a home-based care course with the encouragement of my boss, which was a very big personal achievement.

I started working as a home-based carer and was so happy to put my princess in a very good school. Now we can't renew our permits. I don't know any other life than the one I have now.

Jeremiah Zhuwau

I have worked as a forecourt attendant at a petrol station in Gqeberha since 2008. The decision to scrap the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits will affect me because I am providing for both my family here in South Africa and my parents in Zimbabwe. My father needs my assistance as he is 95 years old.

I have four children, two of who were born in South Africa. They are still going to school, and they don't know what Zimbabwe is like.

I'm worried that I will lose what I have in my bank accounts, my pension fund and UIF benefits if I'm forced to leave. I pray that something is done to prolong our stay here legally.

Majaha Ndlovu

I have lived in South Africa for more than 27 years, and if I am denied a permit, I will have to go back to Zimbabwe when I have around 10 years left to go until my retirement. To find employment at this stage of my life will be difficult.

I am a qualified panel beater by profession and I qualified under the skills development programme in 2014. I have worked in the motor industry since 1998. I have been contributing to UIF and provident funds and paid tax during all that time. How will I get my funds if the permit is cancelled?

I also support three children, one of which I had to take out of school because of this permit [situation]. I haven't been able to do simple things like renewing my car licence because I was told my permit had expired.

Constance Siwela

The cancellation of the Zimbabwean Exemption permits came as a shock, not only to me but also to my fellow countrymen who are ZEP holders. 

I left my country, in fear of my life, as l was a political activist. My life was under constant threat. I absolutely have no interest in Zimbabwe. My livelihood, and that of my children, is in South Africa. I currently work as a driver at Takealot.

Our livelihoods are in severe jeopardy now that, after 10 years, the South African government expects us to just pack our bags and go. I'm a single mom of two daughters, both born in South Africa. This is all they know. One of my daughters has been affected psychologically after learning about the cancellation of permits.

The cancellation of ZEP permits has driven me and my family into utter desperation.


"This decision will condemn me and my family to street life and poverty after years of hard work."

 Thuli Sibanda

I have been in South Africa since I was 18. My whole life is here. I pay tax, my TV licence and retail accounts. But now my bank account and everything else is blocked. I can't even buy anything online.

My kids are completing their schooling here, so this decision will have a big impact on all our lives.

I wish the South African government could be lenient and give us back our permits.

Lindiwe Mathe

I am married to a Zimbabwean man, and we have three children together. My husband is a general worker at a manufacturing company in Johannesburg, and he is able to take care of me and our children. We can afford an average lifestyle.

With the non-renewal of the ZEP, I am deeply worried that my husband will lose his job and even be deported, and then I will suffer with the children. I won't be able to provide for my children the way my husband is providing for them right now, which is to pay rent, buy food, pay school fees and school transport.

Life is going to be really difficult without his assistance. It is going to be an uphill struggle. We will also deeply suffer emotionally as we are a close-knit family and will have to part ways. This decision has a huge likelihood of destroying families and exposing our children to poverty and suffering.

Andrew Dube

I came to South Africa in 2006 and worked here under a refugee permit which was later cancelled with the introduction of special dispensation permits for Zimbabweans in 2010. I went through all those permits until the last one ZEP which expired in December 2021. 

The expiry of the permits has brought a lot of uncertainty over what to do next because l had found a place where my family can build a new and improved future for themself. My children are schooling here including those that have finished their matric (two boys). I am now worried about the other one who is doing Grade 11 this year. If my permit is not renewed he will be forced to start form three in Zimbabwe, which means he will finish matric three years later, because Grade 11 in South Africa is equivalent to form 4 in Zimbabwe. That's a serious drawback for him. 

I have built a clean life in South Africa and I have come to consider it my home. I have been to Zimbabwe not more than five times over the past 16 years. If I am kicked out of the country now I don't know where to start in Zimbabwe, where economic conditions are so difficult. Yes, some might say it's our duty to go and fix it. If you have never been to Zimbabwe you might think it is that easy. During the Gukurahundi era, it was a pain for some of us who come from the other side of the country. 

I have of course applied for the mainstream permit and hope the South African government will consider my application, but my wife is a housemaid, and she is not allowed to apply.

"Fear and anxiety are the order of the day."

 'This is hell' - teachers' uncertain future when Zim permits expire

By Tebogo Monama

"I am prepared to stay here illegally. I am even willing to do menial jobs. This will be survival of the fittest."

These are the desperate words of a Zimbabwean national working as a teacher in South Africa on the plan to discontinue the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit in December.

Wilfred, who asked that his surname not be used, arrived in South Africa in 2009. He works as a deputy principal at a private school and teaches geography and English. Before relocating to South Africa, he worked as a principal in Zimbabwe.

The Department of Home Affairs' registry lists the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and maths in grades 8 to 12 as critical skills. Wilfred does not fall into this category.

 It 'takes me back to forced removals under apartheid' - activist's Zim exemption permit fears

By Tebogo Monama

When Sharon Ekambaram imagines what will happen on 31 December, when Zimbabwe Exemption Permits expire and holders lose their legal status in South Africa, she thinks of forced removals that occurred during apartheid.

Ekambaram, the head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, imagines that families will be forcibly removed from what most of them have called home for the last decade. 

"...my image... takes me back to forced removals under apartheid. You have families living here; they have no connection with Zimbabwe. They don't have a home in Zimbabwe. Children have grown up in our country and only speak our South African official languages. They don't even speak their mother tongue in some instances. They have been socialised in [South African] communities."

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News24 editorial: Government's decision to end permit for Zimbabweans is shameful

When 31 December 2022 arrives, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, like his peers in Cabinet, will be with their families and will not have to fear being displaced from a country they've called home. 

Instead, this will be the reality for thousands of Zimbabweans who will be affected by Cabinet's decision made last December to cancel, without consideration, the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP). 

The resolve was made without due regard for what would happen to tens of thousands of people who came to South Africa seeking nothing but a better life, and whose lives will now be upended by this decision.

The exemption permits were granted to more than 250 000 Zimbabweans who were among more than estimated two million who migrated to neighbouring countries at the height of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. 

The temporary measure was meant to regularise their presence in South Africa and allow Zimbabweans access to services such as banking. But now government has decided to cancel this measure without putting proper plans in place.

The one-year grace period expires at the end of this year. 

In justifying government's decision, Motsoaledi bemoaned how "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".

The thing is, the South African government did play a role in the political crises that engulfed Zimbabwe, resulting in the economic crises, by allowing the Mugabe regime to get away with rigging the 2002 election and many other crimes after that.

There's much to be said about former president Thabo Mbeki's complicity in the actions of the Mugabe regime as was revealed by the Khampepe report, which government spent 12 years blocking from becoming public. 

Those who got caught in the crossfire of the political and economic crises in Zimbabwe did all they could to flee for a better life, turning to neighbouring South Africa for refuge. 

Now, these people face further displacement as they risk deportation once the ZEP expires at the end of the year.  

Those who left Zimbabwe and settled in South Africa, have called this home for over 10 years. They have had children here and built their lives here. 

As you will see in News24's Unwelcomed Neighbours, the decision to revoke the permit affects all types of people from across the social spectrum. It impacts on teachers, truck drivers and doctors. It will separate families and leave others stranded without cars or access to banking.

It interrupts university students who were trying to complete their degrees and it affects people like Angeline, who has been living and working in South Africa for near on a decade, but will not be able to seek treatment for brain cancer at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, without a valid permit.

She is currently in remission, but fears for her life. Gladys says she has sleepless nights because she does not even have a home in Zimbabwe. "l don't know where I am going to live when l get deported. I am going to sleep in the street because l have nowhere to go to," she said. 

Others like Kelvin Chunyemba are worried about what this decision means for their children.

"The main issue is with kids who are going to school.Some are already at a higher level, so changing them to a new different curriculum is a big obstacle. Now the banks are threatening to freeze the accounts. It's all a mess," he said. 

As many activists and ordinary people affected by this decision will tell you, government's processes make applying for another permit difficult and sometimes almost impossible. 

People like Obey Shana want to comply with government's decision, but believe a grace period of one year does not give them enough time to sort out their lives, to either return to Zimbabwe or to apply for the necessary documentation in South Africa. 

What further stood out for us in probing the impact of Cabinet's decision to end the ZEP was the fear among ordinary Zimbabweans of being identified. They are worried that they will fall victim to movements like Operation Dudula, who have been emboldened in their xenophobia by government's decision. 

With just six months to go until the permit is cancelled, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans - our neighbours - will no longer be welcome in South Africa and their lives will be turned upside down again. In the spirit of ubuntu, we should all be ashamed. 

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Unwelcomed Neighbours was edited by Qaanitah Hunter and produced by Kelly Anderson. News editing was by Sheldon Morias, Warda Meyer and Mpho Raborife. Multimedia by Aljoscha Kohlstock and Catherine Rice.