The first phase of a vast operation to legalize Zimbabweans who fled south across the border to South Africa during the past 10 years of political and economic crisis has ended. South Africa is scrutinizing more than 275,000 applications for permits from Zimbabweans who met the December 31 deadline, and says it will not deport any until the whole process has been completed.
Among the applicants for legal status in South Africa are Zimbabweans who had forged South African birth certificates and passports.
When the initiative to legalize Zimbabweans began last September, the South African government said it would not prosecute those with fraudulent identity documents provided they applied for amnesty.
Many Zimbawean political activists said they fled across the border to escape persecution from the former ZANU-PF government and were given asylum in South Africa.
More became economic refugees when the Zimbabwe dollar became worthless, shops had no food to sell, and schools and hospitals closed.
South Africa Director-General of Home Affairs Mkuseli Apleni says thousands of Zimbabweans received amnesty from prosecution for having forged identity documents and many more surrendered their asylum status.
"Amnesty has been granted to 6,243 Zimbabwean nationals," Apleni said. "And a total of 49,255 Zimbabwean nationals have surrendered their asylum status in favor of obtaining valid work and business permits."
He said it was clear the majority of Zimbabwean nationals in South Africa wanted to comply with immigration regulations so they could live productive lives without fear of deportation.
Because the Zimbabwe government says it cannot produce more than 500 passports a day for its citizens, the process to legalize all those who have applied for work and business permits in South Africa will take several months to finalize.
Apleni said Zimbabweans should not be anxious while they waited for their passports from Harare.
"While we appreciate your sense of uncertainty, we appeal to you to be patient," Apleni said. "We will not prolong your uncertainty for any longer than is necessary. We also reiterate that we will not be deporting any undocumented Zimbabwean nationals until we have completed the processing of all applications."
Non-governmental organization "People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty" has done much to prevent xenophobia against Zimbabweans and protested on their behalf when they faced deportation.
It congratulated the South African government for the initiative to legalize Zimbabweans, but said it is concerned 100,000 applicants depend on the Zimbabwe government to supply them with passports.
Many Zimbabwean exiles say they believe there are still many more Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa and fear that they have missed the deadline to change their status.
Apleni said he did not believe this was the case.
"By the last day, on the 31st [of] December, we dealt with everybody who was on the line to come and apply," Apleni said. "That is why we are saying we have covered every Zimbabwean. To date we have not received anything from somebody who said we are here, we are 500,000 we did not apply, we were not accommodated."
Since the December 31 deadline passed, Zimbabwe’s passport department says it has suffered a system failure and at present is not issuing any passports.