South Africa’s systemic xenophobia betrays a political comrade in Zimbabwe

Rufaro Samanga
By Rufaro Samanga

Epidemiologist, Science writer, Culture writer., Podcaster. Rufaro often writes about African politics, science, feminism and culture. Her work has appeared in New Frame, AMAKA, Mail & Guardian, Daily Maverick and others.

Posted on Monday, 1 August 2022 11:47
Zimbabweans demonstrate outside the Zimbabwe Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Shafiek Tassiem

Towards the end of last year, the South African government announced that it would not be renewing the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) that had been granted to citizens prior to 2009. The decision, which was attributed to Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy under Robert Mugabe’s four-decades-long regime, stands to affect close to 200,000 Zimbabweans currently working and studying in the country.

Although South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs claims it is merely regulating immigration within the country, the move speaks to pervasive and systemic xenophobia towards Zimbabwe — a country whose seemingly forgotten political contributions were valuable during the fight against apartheid. 

Overlooking historical ties

To better understand the broader impact of the revocation of ZEP, it’s important to go back in time and consider the relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

[Mugabe] stood by us during our darkest hour and was unwavering [in] support when our people were suffering under the yoke of apartheid.

In 1960, the apartheid government banned the African National Congress (ANC) from operating and this would remain in effect for the next three decades. Having taken its activities underground, and thereafter forming an armed guerilla wing in UMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC needed an ally in Zimbabwe, which had obtained its independence from Britain in 1980, in order to host general meetings in Harare without fear of being prosecuted; provide a safe haven for anti-apartheid struggle veterans who needed to go into exile as well as a country to provide passage for MK recruits to travel to Tanzania for military training from Botswana.

Additionally, those who had broken away from the ANC in 1959 and formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) also received help from Zimbabwe, although more so through Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), the political rival to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front Zanu-PF. 

Following Mugabe’s death in 2017, former President Thabo Mbeki and current President Cyril Ramaphosa praised the deceased for his contributions to helping South Africa. “[Mugabe] stood by us during our darkest hour and was unwavering [in] support when our people were suffering under the yoke of apartheid,” Ramaphosa told a crowd in Harare.

Although the relationship between the ANC and Zanu-PF has always been complex, it is quite hypocritical and perhaps even a betrayal to conveniently speak of historical ties between the countries, especially under the guise of Pan Africanism, while simultaneously using Zimbabweans living in South Africa as political pawns.

South Africa goes back on its word

According to Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the ZEP was introduced after the influx of Zimbabweans in 2008 following hyperinflation, unemployment and food shortages under Mugabe. The intention was to somewhat regularise the status of Zimbabwean citizens in South Africa with the hopes that the conditions under which they were forced to leave would eventually change and facilitate their return.

However, even under Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe continues to be in decline. Additionally, although one of the conditions of ZEP was that it would not be renewable, it was in fact renewed over the last decade and thus created a reasonable expectation among permit holders that their lives would not simply be upended without the necessary accommodations. 

It was sold to us in a way that made it sound like we were legitimate and were like South Africans in many ways in terms of opportunities.

Makomborero Shiri (name changed for security reasons) is a prime example of a young Zimbabwean woman waiting to know what her life and that of her family may look like in the next few months. A 27-year-old PhD student in neurosciences at The University of Cape Town, Shiri describes how she got ZEP. “[My family] got the permits right at the beginning of 2010 when they were starting to give them out. It was sold to us in a way that made it sound like we were legitimate and were like South Africans in many ways in terms of opportunities. I was in Grade 10 at the time and so we jumped right on it,” she says.

“Towards the end of 2021, there was a lot of anxiety because we weren’t sure whether or not [the permit] was going to be renewed again,” she tells The Africa Report. According to Shiri, she’ll now have to apply for a postdoctoral degree immediately after she submits her PhD next month in order for her to apply for yet another study visa to remain in the country. Although this doesn’t allow her much wiggle room in terms of time, Shiri admits that her parents’ situation is comparatively more uncertain with both of them having to apply for work permits wherein they need to prove they provide critical skills to the South African workforce. 

Peeling back the layers

Following the decision to end the ZEP, the cabinet extended a so-called grace period to ZEP holders to migrate to other visas. However, upon closer inspection of this directive, it is clear that this is yet another tactic to frustrate Zimbabweans, many of whom do not meet the specific criteria for the critical skills visa or business visa, and if they do, still face bureaucratic red tape in having either of these visas issued and more, especially before the 31 December deadline of this year. 

Over the years, South Africa has had a number of violent xenophobic attacks that have seen immigrants having their businesses torched to the ground; displaced from their homes; physically assaulted and murdered with impunity. Many of these attacks have occurred in townships and informal settlements across the country where marginalised South Africans often feel they are competing with foreign nationals for scarce employment and a better quality of life. 

The rhetoric has always been that xenophobia is episodic and exclusive to environments where South Africans struggle to make ends meet. The reality, however, is that xenophobia has become institutionalised in South Africa in much the same way that racism in the country remains systemic across most spheres of life. Xenophobia is deeply woven into the fabric of South African society and has subsequently become a political tool used by a failing government. 

South Africa heads towards national elections in 2024, and the ANC struggles to garner support even among their staunchest of followers. The ruling party has thus turned to stoke the fires of xenophobia in order to deflect from their complete dereliction of duty. Moreover, the continued expulsion of foreign nationals will aid in continuing the fallacy that the country’s woes are a direct result of immigrants and not misgovernance. 

Perhaps, when the last foreign national has been forced out of the country, will South Africa finally realise that their many problems: crime, gender-based violence, unemployment and homelessness, still remain. Who will they turn to then?

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