JOHANNESBURG, 16 September 2010 (IRIN) – South Africa is to resume the deportation of Zimbabweans on 1 January 2011, on the basis that conditions in their home country have improved sufficiently, while those with valid documents will be issued with permits to stay. This is a welcome promise, activists say, but hard to implement and irrelevant to most expatriates.
In April 2009 South Africa placed a moratorium on deportations, introduced a 90-day visa on demand for Zimbabwean passport holders, and was on the cusp of issuing a special permit allowing them to work and reside in South Africa for up to 3 years, but this has now been reversed.
“After the 31st of December  all undocumented Zimbabweans will be treated like all others and their deportation will resume,” a South African Cabinet statement warned in early September. Government spokesperson Themba Maseko told local media the decision was based on the belief that “some form of stability has returned to Zimbabwe.”
Doctor Ncube, Vice-President of the Global Zimbabwe Forum, a diaspora organization, maintained that for most expatriates “Zimbabwe is not anywhere near to being safe enough to go home to.”
According to the Cabinet statement, “Zimbabwean nationals who are working, conducting business, or studying in South Africa will be issued with a working permit, business permit, or study permit … provided they have valid Zimbabwean documents.”
This was an empty promise, Ncube told IRIN. “It’s a good gesture, but those permits are only relevant to a small minority because most Zimbabweans in South Africa illegally cross the border,” and do not have the necessary documentation; they also usually work in the informal sector and so would be at risk of deportation.
The Zimbabwean government has said it would provide undocumented nationals in South Africa with the necessary paperwork, but most fear that officials on both sides of the border lack the resources and capacity to process the huge group before the end of the year.
The Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg has estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Zimbabweans were living in South Africa.
“While it is encouraging to see the government expanding avenues for legal immigration – a positive step towards a regional migration system – the programme’s successful implementation will require an unprecedented level of administrative capacity and coordination. The explicit reliance on Zimbabwe’s frail consular services adds another potential pitfall,” the director of FMSP, Loren Landau, told IRIN.
“Given the reluctance of South Africa to grant refugee status to Zimbabwe’s victims of persecution, one is left wondering just how many hitherto undocumented migrants will practically qualify for legal status under this initiative.”