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Zimbabwe: When only a (R1,000-R2,000) mother will do

By Khadija Sharife in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 16 May 2011 17:03

Time is up for the thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa who failed to regularise their status by the end of 2010. What are their legal, or not so legal, options to avoid deportation?

Read Khadija Sharife’s blog about the struggles of Zimbabwean immigrants living in South Africa

We met at the Department of Home Affairs. Several years ago, he claimed, he paid R5,000 ($716.40) that he couldn’t afford to a ‘handler’ for guaranteed passage, crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo river and ducking border guards, all to reach South African soil. What he found there was not much better. “It doesn’t matter if you work hard. There is no place for you. They see you as a parasite,” he said. The Zimbabwean in question was referring to the brutal wave of xenophobic attacks that erupted in South Africa last year. “I was a teacher in Zimbabwe. Here, I’m not even a human.”?

But the perceived culture of hostility towards foreign Africans in South Africa, specifically affecting the largest group of migrants – Zimbabweans – is not just at ground level. It extends to the government, which until recently did not recognise the immigrant reality as a domestic issue. In many instances, this presented a life-threatening situation to ‘illegal aliens’ who lived in fear of detainment and deportation.

In South Africa, a suspected illegal alien may be detained for up to 48 hours while his or her status is investigated. If officers perceive the person to be an illegal alien, he or she may be detained for up to 30 days without a warrant, pending deportation. Section 34 of South Africa’s Immigration Act allows officers to arrest, detain and deport any foreigner if they are convinced (and have no documentation proving otherwise) that the suspect is not a temporary or permanent resident of South Africa. The Act stipulates that an undocumented person, defined only as, “a foreigner who is in the Republic in contravention of this Act”, be deported. In April 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that as many as 18,000 Zimbabweans were being deported monthly – said to be the highest deportation figures globally.

During the past three decades, there have been three waves of Zimbabwean migration: the first, comprised of whites resettling from Zimbabwe following the electoral success of ZANU-PF in 1980; the second, Ndebele migrants fleeing the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s; and finally, the most sustained wave of migrants fleeing the interlocking political, economic and constitutional catastrophes rooted in the autocratic control of ZANU-PF by Mugabe. Estimates of how many Zimbabweans are present in South Africa range from 1.5 to 3m.

While many make their way to Johannesburg and other major urban areas, Zimbabweans are dispersed throughout the country, residing in many townships and informal settlements in smaller provincial towns, and near mines and farms as well as rural villages.

Their lives are highly insecure. In Kraaifontein, a location in Cape Town, for example, “95% of Zimbabweans have either been robbed or stabbed, or experienced both,” said Tyanai Masiya, a civil society activist and Zimbabwean PhD student based in Cape Town. “Locals just watch and the police claim they are ill-equipped to deal with the situation. With no work, or temporary jobs with very low wages, a safe place to stay is a dream never to be lived,” he said.

In mid-2009, the South African government lifted visa requirements, ­legally allowing Zimbabweans to visit the country or seek temporary work for 90 days through a permit that could be used once in a single calendar year. Then in August 2010 a special dispensation permit was announced, with a new application process that was open until 31 December 2010.

The process required letters or other forms of proof from employers or universities declaring that the applicants were employed or studying in the country on or prior to May 2009.

But the bulk of Zimbabweans residing in South Africa are dependent on casual work or unemployed, and were therefore excluded from this system. Moreover, it required a valid passport which was cost-prohibitive to most Zimbabweans, while the Zimbabwean government was able to provide only 500 passports per day, significantly delaying the process.

“Anyone who missed the deadline would not be considered,” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, based in Johannesburg. “They would fall thereafter within the ‘normal consideration’, which is extremely inflexible, accommodating people who are highly skilled or educated. It does not cater for people who are gardeners or domestic workers. For them, success through the ordinary process is very slim,” she said.

Ramjathan-Keogh said that government had also provided an amnesty to Zimbabweans using fraudulent papers, which also ended on 31 December 2010, though just 4,000 people had stepped forward. “One Zimbabwean who was using fraudulent papers after the amnesty came and went, is now serving a four-year sentence,” she said.

After a three-month extension of the moratorium on deportations to allow the government to process the 275,000 permit applications, Zimbabweans who could not or did not apply now fear being sent across the border again.

How might ‘genuine’ papers be secured for immigrants seeking South African identities??

According to a source who asked to remain anonymous, for about R10,000 ($1,424) a genuine birth certificate can be purchased from a hospital in Durban. Though he claimed that the hospital itself was not involved, he alleged that an administrative official had been providing immigrants, as well as South Africans eager to change their identity numbers as a means of evading criminal charges, with certificates that could then be used for ‘late birth’ registrations. Successful registration facilitates the right of access to other documents, including a South African passport and identity card.

The source said that a South African woman, recruited as a trusted person by the immigrant and paid between R1,000-R2,000, would step in as a biological ‘mother’, providing her identification and necessary details. The intermediary connecting the immigrants to the hospital official would receive as much as R5,000. The source said he could name an intermediary but ­believed that if his name was connected in any way, his life, and that of his family, would be in grave danger.

He said 50% of the funds had to be supplied in advance in order to meet with the administration official, with the balance paid after the transaction was completed. The turnaround time was estimated at a week.

The source did not believe that any officials at Home Affairs were involved, but an immigration specialist who also requested anonymity said the process appeared quite well organised. “It can only succeed if the certificate offered is accepted at DHA, so one must assume that there is a bribe involved,” he said. The DHA had not responded to a request for comment by the time The Africa Report went to press.

Ramjathan-Keogh said that while corruption was a serious problem at the Department of Home Affairs, “it is entirely possible that the hospital record is perceived as being genuine as well”.She said Home Affairs had established a counter-corruption unit to deal with the problem, which they took very seriously. “With late birth registration, it is not as easy as it was five years ago.”

Leon Isaacson, managing director of Global Migration SA, recently launched a lawsuit against the Department of Home Affairs on behalf of his clients, over 90% of whom had followed the Immigration Act route.

“Our clients are not chiefly refugees or immigrants. They are just people who have been waiting for as long as 12 or 13 months – their applications have been lost, or it has taken too long … Instead of dealing with issues or up-scaling staff, [the DHA] have taken on the burden of another 275,000 applications, putting the internal system under pressure. It is probably asking too much,” he said.

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report