Zimbabweans have long wait to get legal - Home affairs inundated but minister resists call to extend deadline

THE sun beat down on the thousands of hats, umbrellas, blankets and bare heads in a queue of Zimbabwean migrants in Harrison Street in the Johannesburg city centre yesterday.

Many have been waiting here since the night before, sleeping on the street in an attempt to be close to the front of the line when the office doors open so they can submit their applications for special work, study and business permits that will enable them to work and live legally in SA.

In the shadow of the Department of Home Affairs building, Lindi Ncube mutters that the doors have not even been opened yet today. It is 1pm. “They are treating us like we are uncivilised here …. It’s embarrassing having to line up on the road like this.”

Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told a United Nations conference yesterday that the government has been “inspired” by undocumented Zimbabwean migrants’ and refugees ’ positive response to its recent special permit drive. Speaking in Geneva, at the executive session of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms Dlamini-Zuma said “large volumes” of Zimbabwean nationals have turned up at home affairs offices to take advantage of the offer to “regularise their stay, (allow them to) live in dignity in SA and to end the misery of living under the cloud of uncertainty and vulnerability”.

For many Zimbabweans , however, it is the “large volumes” that are the problem.

The department said last week that it had received 6000 applications since the start of the process on September 20, and 1100 permits had been evaluated and awarded, with only eight rejections. But the department also acknowledged that studies estimate there are 1,5-million Zimbabweans living in SA.

Poor communication between home affairs headquarters and its regional offices has created confusion for many, says Gabriel Shumba, director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

Jacob van Garderen, director of Lawyers for Human Rights , says home affairs officials are not consistently applying permit application requirements. “The department needs to make this information clearly available, not only to the public, but more specifically to their officials — so we work off the same sheet.”

Evermore Hungwe, a 34- year-old electrician, says he just wants to be able to work without being harassed. “We contribute to the South African economy,” he says, “and we contribute to our own economy by sending money home.”

Mr Hungwe has been waiting here for two days to submit his application . “I will wait for as long as it takes,” he insists.

At nearly 2pm the doors open . A stampede ensues.

Mr van Garderen says the period allocated to process the permits “won’t be able to even make a dent” in the number of people needing documentation. “Come the end of December, the majority of Zimbabweans will still be undocumented, and with the end of the special dispensation will be at risk of being arrested and deported.

“A deadline is usually used as an incentive,” he says, “but it’s not really necessary in this case. The majority will grab at this change to get regularised.”

Civil society groups have urged the state to extend the deadline but Ms Dlamini-Zuma says this will not happen. “This offer will end on December 31,” she said in Geneva.

NASTASYA TAY - Business Day
Published: 2010/10/05 06:17:36 AM