Yet another challenge to SA’s plan to ‘drive out 178 000 Zimbabweans’

The Zimbabwe Immigration Federation, representing about 1 000 Zimbabweans working legally in South Africa, this week launched a challenge in the Pretoria High Court against Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and six other respondents over the decision to suspend the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) system.

The ZEP system, which allows Zimbabweans to work in SA, was suspended in November 2021, then extended until the end of 2022 to give permit holders more time to apply for other permits or face deportation or voluntary repatriation to Zimbabwe.

Two other cases have been launched challenging the SA government’s decision – one by Advocate Simba Chitando, representing the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit Holders Association (Zepha), and one by the Helen Suzman Foundation.

The Zepha differs in that it argues ZEP holders are legitimately entitled to permanent residence in SA.

The respondents in the case filed this week are the minister and director-general of Home Affairs, President Cyril Ramaphosa, the national commissioner of the SA Police Services (SAPS), the minister of police, the Border Management Authority and the SA National Defence Force.

The Zimbabwe Immigration Federation is asking the court to restrain and interdict the respondents from “arresting, issuing an order for deportation or detaining” any ZEP holder for deportation.

‘Disastrous impact’

The decision to suspend the ZEP system has had a disastrous impact on hundreds of thousands of people “including children and their poverty-stricken families in Zimbabwe, where unemployment, instability, and starvation are rife”, says the Federation in a statement. Many Zimbabweans rely for their survival on family working in South Africa.

“So many people are affected that this is probably one of the most far-reaching and important cases ever to come before a South African court,” adds the Federation.

It is asking the court to allow valid ZEP holders to freely enter and depart SA.

“The contention [by the Minister of Home Affairs] that the deportation of 178 000 permit holders in a population of 60 million – being less than 0.3% – will have any meaningful effect on unemployment has no merit and if anything such a deportation will cause economic and other disruption, itself causing unemployment where they are active,” says the Federation, which is also asking the court to review and set aside the decision not to renew the ZEP system.

There is a fear that these court challenges will run out of time, as the ZEP system formally expires in December 2022. The Federation has asked that the court expedite the granting of relief to prevent the pending loss of jobs to ZEP holders, as well as deportations and financial prejudice through loss of provident fund, unemployment insurance and pension funds.

The Federation’s legal team comprises Eric Mabuza and Zondiwe Longwe of Eric Mabuza Attorneys, as well as advocates Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC and Tshidiso Ramogale, a Harvard graduate.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Federation says the decision of the court will impact the livelihoods of Zimbabweans “and whether they continue to remain lawfully in the country, or whether they would be deported en masse”.

Various schemes have been introduced since 2009 to allow Zimbabweans to live, work, study and conduct business in SA. The first was the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP), introduced in 2009, which gave legal status to more than 250 000 Zimbabweans who had fled political and economic instability in that country. This scheme was extended and renamed the Zimbabwean Special Permit (ZSP) in 2014 and the ZEP in 2017.

Border control tightened

The Department of Home Affairs recently launched the Border Guard under the Border Management Authority (BMA) to tighten border security and prevent illegal immigration. The first 200 border guards were deployed at the Beit Bridge border post with Zimbabwe earlier this month.

The BMA introduces a single authority for border management to replace the previous multi-agency approach which was widely regarded as cumbersome and inefficient.

In a recent statement in The Sowetan, Motsoaledi said the existing immigration system had gaps which allowed employers to practice ”modern-day slavery by pitting unionised South Africans against illegal foreigners”.

What was needed was an immigration board and court to speed up applications to hear disputed matters, said Motsoaledi.

Chitando says he welcomes the court application by the Federation. “I have been [in] contact with them, as well as the Helen Suzman Foundation, since the beginning of the year. They have briefed their own legal team. The litigation strategy has always been to attack government’s immoral decision from multiple angles, with as many legal minds as possible. All the parties involved in the matter are receiving additional support from retired Judge Ezra Goldstein. I am confident that ZEP holders will receive justice they deserve after contributing to the South African economy for more than a decade.”

Many of those who have ZEPs originally came here as political refugees, but they were encouraged to convert to the permit system and forfeit their asylum status.

“What about Zimbabweans who are married to a South African and have children who are citizens here? It’s not clear who is going to be deported,” says the Federation.