South Africa has declined to renew special residence permits for nearly 200 000 Zimbabwean economic refugees and asylum seekers that expire next month.
Pretoria said it will instead give beneficiaries of the scheme that was first introduced in 2009 to regularise the stay of undocumented immigrants from Zimbabwe up end of next year to apply for other types of permits that would allow them to continue living in South Africa.
Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the Presidency, said those who fail to secure permits by the end of 2022 must voluntarily leave South Africa or be deported.
“Following its deliberations, the Cabinet has decided to no longer issue extensions to the Zimbabweans and special dispensations,” Mr Gungubele told journalists.
“However, the Cabinet decided on a 12-month grace period at the expiry of current permits.
“In this period holders of this permit should apply for other permits appropriate to their particular status or situation.
“At the expiry of this grace period, those who are not successful would have to depart the Republic of South Africa or deported.”
South Africa first introduced the special permits in April 2009 under a programme known as Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) to document those living and working illegally in one of Africa’s most advanced economies.
The permits expired in 2014 and this prompted Pretoria to introduce a new scheme known as the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permits (ZSPs), which were replaced by the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEP).
ZEPs expire on December 31. Last month, lawyers representing holders of the ZEP permits approached a South African High Court seeking to force President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to grant them permanent residence.
They argued that under South Africa’s immigration laws, foreigners can apply for South African citizenship through naturalisation.
The South African government, however, says the Zimbabweans do not quality for citizenship because of the nature of their permits.
Simba Chitando, the lawyer representing the ZEP permit holders, said they will press on with the litigation.
“I’m very disappointed with the decision by the Cabinet,” Advocate Chitando said.
“I knew that the cancellation of the permits was being called for by many political parties, many of whom did well in the (recent) elections.
“The unfortunate decision has left litigation as the only viable solution for ZEP holders, permanently resident in the country, and who have given over a decade of their lives in this country.”
The number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa is unknown as most of them are undocumented, but some put the number at above one million.
Zimbabweans continue to trek to the neighbouring country in search of jobs as the economic problems back home continue to intensify while others run away from political persecution.
The illegal immigrants were a major issue in South Africa’s recent local government elections where the ruling ANC performed badly amid allegations that it is failing to deal with the problem.