Massive boost for Zimbabweans in SA

Albert Chavhunduka

Zimbabwean Exemption Permit holders in South Africa might be allowed to stay a little longer after the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) challenged the Pretoria government’s decision to terminate the ZEP by year end.

Experts told Review & Mail that because the SA Home Affairs department flouted its own rules and procedures, it was very likely that the matter would be sent back to the department so that they could start the whole process again.

In what seems to be good news for thousands of South African based Zimbabweans who are current holders of the ZEP, the think-tank organisation launched a legal challenge against  SA Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s decision to terminate the ZEP.

In 2021, the SA government announced its decision not to renew the permit while giving only 12 months, for over 178 000 current permit holders to regularise their stay or leave SA.

Now with only six months remaining of the given “grace period”, anxiety is increasing among Zimbabweans in SA some of whom have lived, studied and worked in the neighbouring country for more than a decade. 

HSF, who are they?

Founded 29 years ago, the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) is an independent think-tank in SA which is dedicated to the promotion of liberal democratic values and human rights in post-apartheid South Africa through research, publications, litigation and submissions to the SA parliament.

The foundation was established in honour of Helen Suzman who was an opposition MP who opposed apartheid in the SA parliament. Suzman is the foundation’s patron.

HSF was founded on the belief that the Constitution of South Africa was a liberal document and thrives to promote good governance, transparency and accountability.

The foundation, which is not aligned to any political party, participates in public debates to promote Constitutional values while at the same time advocating for policies that translate the aspirations of the SA Constitution into a lived reality for all South Africans.

The HSF as an independent institution in SA definitely adds moral weight to this immigration issue especially given the fact that there are only a few months left before the expiration of the “grace period” which foreign nationals were given to leave SA.


In their court papers challenging the decision to not extend the ZEP which ended on 31 December 2021, HSF requested for a fair process to be accorded to current holders of the permit who have legally worked, lived and studied in SA.

“It is not the position of HSF that those migrants who are in South Africa unlawfully should be entitled to remain, nor even that the ZEP must continue in perpetuity,” the foundation said.

“Rather, our position is that those who have scrupulously observed South Africa’s laws in order to live and work here, under the ZEP, cannot have such permits terminated without fair process, good reason and a meaningful opportunity to regularise their status. It is what our constitutional order demands.”

The foundation further raised the dire situation of the 178 000 Zimbabweans in SA who have established livelihoods in the neighbouring country where they have stayed for more than a decade and argued that nothing has changed in Zimbabwe, after they fled the country for political and economic reasons.

The foundation said: “This special dispensation regime has offered legal protection to approximately 178 000 Zimbabwean nationals, allowing them to live, work and study in South Africa. It has prevailed for well over a decade, meaning that permit-holders have built lives, families and careers here, and contributed to South Africa and its economy.

“At present, ZEP holders must have obtained other forms of residency authorisation — in the vast majority of cases, an almost impossible requirement — by 31 December 2022 or leave South Africa.

“They will be put to a desperate choice: to remain in South Africa as undocumented migrants with all the vulnerability that attaches to such status or return to a Zimbabwe that, to all intents and purposes, is unchanged from the country they fled.

“There are thousands of children who have been born in South Africa to ZEP holders during this time, who have never even visited their parents’ country of origin.”

Increasing independent voices and their moral weight

One hugely important SA institution, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) supported the HSF’s bid to challenge the decision to terminate the ZEP, a move which it said will not do anything to solve the issues of unemployment, poverty and inequality bedevilling SA.

SALC founding director Nicole Fritz argued that the decision to suspend ZEP permits was a political ploy by certain individuals who were attempting to distract South Africans from poor governance failures as the cause of their economic situation and pinning it on foreigners.

Her opinion and voice really matters especially coming from a well-respected SA institution.

Fritz zeros in on the source and cause of economic problems that are affecting South Africans today, a scenario which has largely been played down by politicians, who were now trying to blame the  influx of foreigners in SA.

“For those who say that the ZEP must be cancelled because of SA’s unemployment rate, it is worth remembering: there are approximately 7.8 million unemployed South Africans. Even if all 178 000 ZEP holders have jobs that might be transferred to South Africans (a wildly inaccurate assumption) the impact that would have on our unemployment rate would be very small. Importantly, studies have shown again and again that migrants help create jobs within an economy,” said Fritz.

“We at HSF entirely understand why so many South Africans are angry and frustrated at the unemployment, poverty, inequality and lack of security they experience. But the idea that termination of ZEP solves any of these enormous problems is wrong and political actors who say differently do so because it pays to scapegoat others as a distraction from governance failures and because stoking hatred and division is often an easier, cheaper path to leadership than principles and vision.”

Africa Diaspora Global Network chairperson Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda concurred with the assertions made by HSF, saying the SA government was being irrational in its decision as conditions in Zimbabwe have continued to deteriorate since 2007.

“Considering that the HSF has already taken their government to court, especially where it feels that government is not doing things appropriately and considering that it is a SA organisation that is trying to hold government to account, it’s going to be an important step,” said Dr Sibanda.

“Many Zimbabweans working in SA and have actually made SA a home especially after a minimum of 13 years of residence considering that some came to SA as early as 2000 but got regularised in 2009. So they have been living in the country for a longer period of time to think that they will just up and leave, it’s very difficult and a very hard ask for them.

“So yes we think that the HSF is very welcome and people are very happy about it and a lot of people are actually breathing a sigh of relief because the Helen Suzman Foundation can afford counsel because they have the resources.”

Dr Sibanda further expressed optimism that the HSF will be able to bring Zimbabweans in SA the reprieve that they need and help to reverse the decision by the Home Affairs department to suspend the ZEP which was not taken in a procedural manner.

“There are quite a few people who think it’s pro-white, but we know that people who think along those lines are those who are against the revisiting of that particular decision and want Zimbabweans out of SA. It really means a lot for the Helen Suzman Foundation to basically come up especially as a reprieve for the people that are from Zimbabwe,” he said.

Dr Sibanda said because the SA Home Affairs department flouted its own rules and procedures, it was very likely that the matter would be sent back to the department so that they can start the whole process again.

This, he said, would give the affected people an opportunity to make representations since the January notification had come at an impossibly have short notice.

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