The South African government has approved a proposal to stop a special dispensation for Zimbabweans and will resume deportations of people staying in the country illegally with effect from the end of December.
The decision was reached during a cabinet meeting in Cape Town on Wednesday.
The number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa is unknown but the International Organisation of Migration estimates that there could be about 3,5 million.
The majority come from the country’s southern region of Matabeleland, Masvingo and part of Midlands.
South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said the decision to end the special dispensation, which had been in place since April 2009, followed a bilateral agreement between the two neighbouring countries’ Home Affairs ministers.
The South African government also believes that stability had returned to Zimbabwe and there was no need for the influx of Zimbabweans into that country.
“The special dispensation will end on 31 December 2010. As part of this agreement, the Zimbabwean Government has undertaken to issue documents to all their undocumented nationals,” said Maseko. “The decision seeks to ensure that all foreign nationals who reside in South Africa are documented and their presence is regularised. After the 31st of December all undocumented Zimbabweans will be treated like all others and their deportation will resume.”
However, the South African government’s decision has been condemned by refugee rights group, Passop, as tantamount to a “death sentence”.
In a statement yesterday Passop said it hoped to meet with the Department of Home Affairs to discuss its unhappiness with the plan and to ensure that the rights of Zimbabweans were protected.
“Failing which, we shall consider what actions could be taken in resistance to the return of the draconian tactics of deportation,” it said.
“(These) amount to the refusal of South Africa to provide survival to vulnerable groups, essentially a death sentence.”
Passop said its initial understanding of the moratorium had been that it was an interim solution while the government provided Zimbabwean nationals with a special exemption under the Immigration Act.
“It has been proven that deportation does not work, as the department previously deported in excess of 140 000 people a year at a huge expense,” Passop said.
“We disagree with the belief that a sustainable solution has been met in Zimbabwe. We do not believe that the humanitarian crisis has been resolved.”
But Maseko said Zimbabweans who were working or conducting business or studying in South Africa would be issued with work permits, business permits or study permits provided they had valid Zimbabwean documents.
He said the South African government would grant an amnesty for Zimbabweans who obtained South African identification documents fraudulently on condition that they return the documents to the Department of Home Affairs with immediate effect.
Maseko said the two governments would establish a Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee that would oversee the implementation of this policy decision.
“The issuing of the various permits will commence between now and 31 December and the deportation of undocumented Zimbabweans will resume after this date,” he said, adding that a similar process would be initiated for nationals from other neighbouring countries in the future.
Maseko said the special dispensation was put in place during “a time when there was a political crisis in Zimbabwe” to allow free movement.
Home Affairs co-minister Kembo Mohadi refused to comment on the matter, although the South African government issued a statement on its official website confirming the development. “I will not respond, even if it’s on the South African government official website,” he said.