Hundreds of officials from South Africa?s Home Affairs Department are processing applications from thousands of Zimbabwean migrants seeking legal residence. But with just over a month to go until the end-of-year deadline for applications, there?s no sign that the pressure on the officials is easing, as Zimbabweans desperate to remain legally in Africa?s most powerful economy continue to swamp almost 50 state offices around the country.
In early September, the South African government announced new immigration rules specifically for Zimbabweans. It said they could apply for work, study or business permits by December 31. If they?re approved, they?ll be allowed to stay in South Africa for the next four years. Those who don?t apply or are rejected, and those without refugee status, it says, will be deported beginning early next year.
Home Affairs offices have been swamped since late September, when the government began accepting applications. The International Organization for Migration says there are up to two million Zimbabweans living in South Africa illegally, while some NGOs say the figure is much higher.
Zimbabweans have been streaming into South Africa for about a decade, in the wake of ongoing political violence and economic meltdown in their homeland.
"We are millions?."
Migrants are spending days camped on pavements outside Home Affairs offices in various South African cities, afraid that if they leave their positions in the queue, their applications for legal residence won?t be processed in time and they?ll be expelled.
Home Affairs spokesman Mzwandile Radebe says the government is ?boosting capacity? and ?more staff are being moved to all offices that are overloaded.? But applicants continue to complain that the process is very slow, with queues at some offices barely moving. Government officials confirmed that most Home Affairs offices are unable to process more than 130 applications a day.
?The time for this program is too short. They can?t serve all the Zimbabweans here in this short time. We are millions here in South Africa,? says Jendayi Nkomo, in the street outside a Home Affairs station in the South African capital, Pretoria. Nkomo is a teacher who?s been working illegally in South Africa for the past four years.
?There are only now these few offices that are serving us. At other offices, we can?t be served. So we are piling (up) at one office, where they only serve 200 of us per day. To get this program back on track they must extend the deadline and then open up more offices where Zimbabweans can apply for these permits.?
Gabriel Shumba, a Zimbabwean-born lawyer and director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, says the ?long delays? at Home Affairs offices around South Africa are ?really unacceptable.? Some people risk losing their jobs spending so much time in queues. And if they lose their jobs that will disqualify them from getting work permits.?
"Procedure is weak and unprofessional"
Many migrants complain that South African Home Affairs officials are ?lazy? and appear to work ?mornings only.?
?The problem is (Home Affairs officials) are supposed to work the whole day, not just to work for certain hours."
On the day a reporter visited the Pretoria Home Affairs office, security guards locked the gates shortly after midday. Hundreds of Zimbabweans, including many who had made journeys of hundreds of miles, had to sleep in the street until the office reopened the next morning.
Applicant Thomas Jongwe applauds the South African government for giving migrants ?this great opportunity? to stay legally in South Africa. But he says, ?What is lacking is the experience in implementing it. The working procedure is weak. They are taking too few people. The operation is very unprofessional.?
Radebe maintains Home Affairs officials are ?well trained.? He acknowledges initial ?teething problems,? but says, ?We have a very competent team to handle this project and we are confident that they are performing their duties to the best of their abilities, even though so many applications are being received.?
But Shumba says the process is complicated by ?unnecessary bureaucracy.? He explains that Home Affairs officials are demanding documentation from migrants that?s ?outside of what has been stipulated as the requirements? to apply for the new permits.
?At this office in Pretoria they are demanding proof of residence. That has never been what we understood the South African government to say is one of the prerequisites. Many Zimbabweans do not have proof of residence. They don?t live in suburbs but in shacks in squatter camps,? the lawyer says.
Shumba says many Zimbabweans are afraid ?that this is a way for the South African authorities to trace them at a later stage in order to deport them.? Demanding prerequisites like this make me think the South Africans are hell bent on deporting as many Zimbabweans as possible.?
Leon Isaacson, the managing director of a specialist South African immigration firm, says there?s a ?lot of confusion? surrounding the new visa regime. He says some Home Affairs officials have demanded that Zimbabweans who have official asylum status surrender their refugee papers in order to apply for the new permits ? again, not an official prerequisite to apply for a residence permit.
?This means that these people lose their refugee status in South Africa and will be deported if their permit applications fail,? Shumba says.
South Africa?s chief of immigration at its Home Affairs Department, Jackie McKay, confirms that proof of residence and surrender of asylum documents are not requirements to apply for the new visas. ?I think this was part of problems we experienced in the beginning; I don?t think it?s happening anymore,? he says.
But Shumba maintains such incidents continue ?unabated.?
He says given ?all the problems? associated with the process of permit applications, there?s ?no way? most Zimbabweans living in South Africa will have had the opportunity to apply for the new residence permits come December 31.
?Many people cannot access the Home Affairs Department to apply. The office in Pretoria, for example, is only accepting about 135 people per day; other offices around the country are accepting even less,? says Shumba.
A Home Affairs official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was expected of government officials working on the ?Zimbabwe documentation project? to each ?complete and adjudicate 46 applications per day. With the staff this project currently has, that?s about 16,000 fully processed applications every day.... I think that?s a very good performance.?
But Shumba voices ?serious doubts? about such figures. ?Sixteen thousand per day? That doesn?t sound possible. I mean, the South African government must still do background checks on all applicants for criminal records, for example. You can?t tell me they have the capacity to do all this in just one day.?
Another Home Affairs officer who asked that his name not be used agreed that making the December 31 deadline appeared to be ?out of reach. I can?t see how we?ll make it. December is a holiday month. We all go on holiday on December 16th until the New Year.? That means for the last two weeks of the year, no applications will be processed.?
He?s convinced it will take ?at least a year to complete this process.?
When it was put to McKay that many observers felt there wasn?t enough time to allow Zimbabweans to enter the new process, the immigration chief responded, ?Well, that?s their opinion,? before emphasizing, ?We are trying our best to get to every Zimbabwean in every corner of South Africa. Should we miss some of them, it would be unfortunate.?
Zimbabwean migrant Carol Dika says such a scenario would be ?beyond unfortunate? for her and her family still living in her homeland. ?With the money I earn here in Pretoria, I am keeping seven people alive in Bulawayo. If I am deported, what will happen to us all she asks, shaking her head.
Dika says officials who maintain the new visa system is working well are ?totally out of touch with reality.? She appeals to the ?bosses of Home Affairs? to visit government offices in person to ?come and watch how we are struggling here.?