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Zimbabwean Immigrants in South Africa Seek Work Permits

A woman seeks shade beneath her ID documents as she joins about 200 Zimbabweans in a queue outside the Home Affairs offices in downtown Johannesburg, 6 Oct 2010.

A woman seeks shade beneath her ID documents as she joins about 200 Zimbabweans in a queue outside the Home Affairs offices in downtown Johannesburg, 6 Oct 2010.

Thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa are besieging government offices seeking work permits under a new program announced in September. The South African government has given the estimated one-million undocumented Zimbabweans in the country until the end of December to legalize their status or face deportation.

It is early morning in downtown Johannesburg and several-hundred Zimbabweans have gathered outside the Home Affairs Department to apply for permits to work legally in the country. Many have spent the night on the sidewalk in order to be first in line.

Commercial artist Charles Chawanda stood in line for two days before he received an application form. He is back today with his completed form, his passport and a letter from his employer. "They just write our names down. They just write a number on our form so that today they have started to call our numbers again so that they can process our papers," he said.

He says the authorities have promised to send him a text message when his papers are ready, hopefully in 10 days.

South Africa launched this exercise in September (20th). At the end of December it will end an 18-month moratorium that allowed Zimbabweans without documents to work here for three months at a time without fear of deportation.

Salesperson Tracy Nkonzo has come to apply, but she must wait in line until she can get her name on the list and a number in the queue. "I have been in South Afica for almost four years now and it is a bit tricky when you do not have the necessary papers," she says, "I mean it is not so easy to get a job. I mean the day-to-day life is very difficult if you do not have anything."

But many Zimbabweans in South Africa do not have passports or even birth certificates.

Thousands of them gather every day outside Zimbabwe's passport office in Johannesburg filling the street and standing in lines that snake around the corner.

An overwhelmed Zimbabwean official passes out deposit slips. Applicants must pay the $100 fee at a local bank then return with the receipt in order to receive a passport application form.

A shop fitter from Pretoria, Charles Mtetwa, has been coming here for two weeks. "At the present, I am still waiting for my form there," he says, "I must get my form first. From there I go into this queue to surrender the form there."

During this time he is not being paid. He fears he may lose his job.

South African officials say they are processing 1,000 applications a day at more than 40 centers across the country.

Electronic technician Blessing Musi has spent the past three nights here. He says it takes six weeks to get a passport and then several more weeks for the South African work permit. He is afraid there is not enough time.

"If do not get it in time it means I am going to lose a job, one. My family is going to get nothing, and I am going to go home with nothing," Musi said.

University of Johannesburg Professor David Moore says historically Africans have migrated across the continent, driven by politics, economics and war. "In Africa, as a whole, there is this constant migrating of people from these relatively fragile states which are colonial inventions. It is part of a long-term historical process of intra-continental migration with bursts of nationalism and xenophobia and these sentiments of us versus them," he said.

Moore says many South Africans are sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors. But he adds that resentment is high against foreigners, especially among the millions of unemployed South Africans who live in shacks without water or sanitation.

"It is harder to be hospitable when you are really poor and you feel that people are taking your jobs and taking your houses and that sort of thing," Moore states.

Migrant activist Godfrey Phiri of the Peace Action group says the program will allow some Zimbabweans to legalize their stay. But he says there is not enough time to process everyone. Many think the deadline will be extended, but Phiri says some fundamental changes are needed.

"South Africa has been deporting people, although they say they have not been doing it. And even now the police still continue to harass people on the streets for documentation," Phiri said. "And they are even corrupt as well. They ask for bribes."

Finally, analysts note that most of the estimated one-million illegal immigrants in South Africa are unskilled workers, including children, who are unemployed or working in the informal sector.

They cannot qualify for the work permits. As a result, they are likely to continue as before, sneaking across the porous border and surviving on the streets as best they can.