In 2010, South Africa granted four-year residence permits to nearly a quarter-million Zimbabweans who had entered the country illegally.
Many had fled political and economic turmoil in their homeland, but lived abroad in fear of the day their permits would expire, forcing them to return.
But a recent announcement by the South African government on Tuesday has brought some relief.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has unveiled a new three-year Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP), which will grants applicants a three-year amnesty extension beginning January 1, 2015.
“Permit holders who wish to remain in South Africa after the expiry of their permits can re-apply," he said. "The ZSP will allow permit-holders to live, work, conduct business and study in South Africa until 31 December 2017.”
But the offer comes with a condition. Only holders of the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) permits, which were issued in 2010, may apply for the new ZSP extension. Also, applicants will be required to provide a valid passport, proof of employment, study or business ownership, and have a clean criminal record.
According to Home Affairs officials, applicants will been given three-month window to submit their applications, beginning on October 1, via newly opened visa centers throughout the country.
Gigaba added that the ZSP will be the last special permits given to the Zimbabweans.
"ZSP permit-holders who wish to stay in South Africa after the expiry of their ZSP must return to Zimbabwe to apply for mainstream visas and permits under the Immigration Act," he said. "This means we will not be announcing in 2017 any new special permit."
The news of the new special permits has brought joy to the entire Zimbabwean community in South Africa.
Solomon Chikowero, chairman of a Zimbabwean diaspora group, says Zimbabweans could not have gotten a better deal than this one.
"At least they have a breathing space for the next three years to put their papers in place," he said. "There is also a leeway to move [away] from the ZSP — because it’s a special permit — to a proper permit, which can allow you to apply either for certification or permanent residency thereafter."
An estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans are believed to be living in South Africa as a result of economic and political turmoil in their homeland in the past two decades.