Thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa are trying to legalize their stay before Friday. The South African government says after this deadline it will begin deporting Zimbabweans without documents but those who can prove they have begun the registration process will not be expelled.
Large crowds of Zimbabweans were lined up outside South African Home Affairs offices on the eve of the expiration of a special dispensation (exception) that for the past 18 months had allowed them to work without documents in South Africa.
Officials said lines were long but manageable. But the situation outside Zimbabwean consular offices was less orderly as thousands of Zimbabweans sought the passports needed to apply for the South African permits.
For weeks, the South African government had urged Zimbabweans to regularize their stay through public service announcements on national radio.
Announcement: "Approach the Zimbabwean embassy or consulate to obtain a valid passport or travel documents. Then go to Home Affairs regional offices to apply for study, work or business permit."
Officials said many people had waited until the last days when they were on holiday.
An estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa, many of them illegally. Some say they fled repression and human rights abuses in their country. Others say they came looking for jobs after years of economic decline in Zimbabwe.
The South African government says they should return home because the situation in Zimbabwe has stabilized since the creation of a power sharing government two years ago.
The government announced the registration program in September saying it would begin deporting Zimbabweans without documents after December 31st.
Human rights activists urged it to extend the deadline saying there was not enough time to process all the applications.
Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma responded saying there would be no extension of the deadline but people with receipts proving that they had applied for the work permit or their Zimbabwean passport would be spared. "There will be no deportation until we have finished processing everything that we would have received including waiting for those people who are waiting for their passports," Dlamini-Zuma said.
Migrant activist Godfrey Phiri of the Peace Action group said the program would allow some Zimbabweans to legalize their stay. But he said the registration process is not likely to change the plight of many Zimbabweans.
"South Africa has been deporting people although they say they haven't been doing it," Phiri said. "And even now the police still continue to harass people on the streets for documentation. And they are even corrupt as well. They ask for bribes. And this will continue."
South African officials say they have processed more than 120,000 applications to date and most had been approved.
But analysts say most of the illegal Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa are unskilled workers, including children, who are unemployed or working in the informal sector.
These people do not qualify for work permits. As a result they are likely to continue sneaking across the borders and surviving on the streets as best they can.