South Africa on Thursday said it would not renew temporary permits of around a quarter-of-a-million Zimbabweans working in the country when their visas expire next month.
Some 250,000 Zimbabweans fleeing political and economic crises at home were granted four-year work visas in 2009.
The visas have been repeatedly extended, but the government announced there would be no further extension, opening the potential for mass expulsion of workers.
“Cabinet decided to no longer issue extensions to the Zimbabwean special dispensations,” Mondli Gungubele, a minister in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office, told a news conference.
The workers have been given a year’s grace to apply for alternative visas that may be applicable to individual situations.
“At the expiry of this 12-month period, those who are not successful will have to leave South Africa or be deported,” said Gungubele.
Zimbabweans are found across South Africa, working particularly in the hospitality, retail and service sectors.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, is a magnet for economic migrants searching for better job prospects in the region.
But Ramaphosa’s government is under pressure to create job opportunities for its citizens as ballooning unemployment rates exceed 34 percent.
The country has in recent years been tightening its visa regulations and closing loopholes.
According to the last population census, South Africa hosts more than 2.2 million foreigners, including political refugees, economic migrants and skilled expatriate workers.
- The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit which expires on 31 December will not be renewed Cabinet announced on Thursday.
- About 182,000 Zimbabweans who hold the permit have been given a year’s grace to migrate to other permits to allow them to stay in South Africa.
- The Cabinet decision is disappointing for many who now face an uncertain future.
On Thursday, Cabinet announced that the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), which ends 31 December, will not be extended.
However, Cabinet decided on a 12-month grace period during which time ZEP holders “should apply for other permits appropriate to their particular status or situation”. Those who are not successful will have to leave South Africa or face deportation, said Cabinet.
This ends months of rising anxiety for about 180,000 Zimbabweans in South Africa as the ZEP expiry date loomed and there had been no indication of what government intended to do.
Permit holders were debating whether to return home for Christmas. Many said banks had been refusing to grant them loans and cancelling their pre-approved bond applications, while employers were not renewing contracts because of their uncertain status. Cabinet’s grace period will not necessarly help in this regard, and many ZEP holders are unlikely to qualify for other permits.
Leaving the announcement to the eleventh-hour had also allowed for misinformation that the South African government had extended the permits by five years to circulate on social media, rumours which the Cabinet statement referred to as fake news.