The South African government says Zimbabweans may now visit the country for 90 days without a visa and during this time they may seek temporary work.
South Africa Interior Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has announced a free, 90-day visitor's permit for Zimbabweans, saying it was part of regional integration efforts.
"The primary objective is to facilitate the legal movement of people between South Africa and Zimbabwe. In addition, our two countries are strengthening our efforts to fight human trafficking, human smuggling and other cross-border crimes," he said.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, many illegally. A large number say they are fleeing political persecution and apply for asylum. But the South African government considers most of them to be economic migrants looking for work.
The new visitor's permit would reportedly allow Zimbabweans to seek casual, or temporary, work in South Africa during their stay.
The accord was signed by two Zimbabwean home affairs ministers. Under the Zimbabwean power sharing agreement, this ministry is shared by the ZANU-PF of President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Both ministers welcomed the new policy as heard in the remarks by MDC minister Giles Mutsekwa. "We in Zimbabwe are happy on behalf of our country and nation that this occasion has been made possible. We are already aware, as ministers of home affairs from Zimbabwe, that our people back home will be joyous," he said.
Last month, the South African government announced a freeze on the deportation of Zimbabweans and the creation of a special permit that would allow them to work in South Africa and benefit from education and health services.
But the South Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Tiseke Kasambala, says the government apparently has yet to implement the new policy because the deportations continue. "We are urging them (the government) to expedite the process because clearly the South African police services have become a law unto themselves and are continuing to deport Zimbabweans and detain them despite this declaration by the Department of Home Affairs," said Kasambala.
There have been reports of rising incidents of abuse against Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa.
Many Zimbabweans cross the border without documents. Some are refused passports for political reasons. Others are not able to obtain documents because of the collapse of government services in their country.
They are considered most vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers and potential employers. But they are also victimized by Zimbabwean border gangs and sometimes by security forces on both sides of the border.