The South African government has decided to end special dispensation for undocumented Zimbabwean refugees and will deport those who do not have permission to stay by the end of the year. At least one group representing  Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa described the decision by President Jacob Zuma's Cabinet this week as "tantamount to a death sentence" for those who will be deported.

The South African Cabinet has decided that Zimbabweans must be properly documented to remain in South Africa.

It said that it has been in contact with the home affairs ministry in Harare to ensure that proper documentation is supplied to Zimbabwean nationals living illegally in South Africa.

A small percentage of Zimbabweans in South Africa fled from their country to avoid political persecution from President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF.

The Solidarity Peace Trust said recently it estimated there were about 1.5 million Zimbabweans illegally living in South Africa.

Most Zimbabweans in South Africa say they left home for economic reasons as the economy collapsed over the last 10 years.

The South African government said the special dispensation had ended because the 18-month-old unity government had ended the Zimbabwe crisis.

South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said those who wanted to stay in South Africa must obtain documentation from Harare.

"Zimbabwe nationals who are working, conducting business or studying in South Africa, will be issued with a working permit, a business permit or a study permit respectively, provided they have valid Zimbabwean documents," said Maseko.

Maseko said the government was aware that some  Zimbabweans had illegally obtained South African identity documents, but that they would not be prosecuted provided they handed them in.

"There will also be an amnesty for Zimbabweans, who may have obtained South African identification documents fraudulently, on condition that such documents are returned to the Department of Home Affairs with immediate effect.   Those who return the illegal documents, will be issued with the relevant permits," said Maseko.

Refugee rights organization Passop said deportations of Zimbabweans who had been allowed into South Africa without documentation since April 2009 was "tantamount to a death sentence."

Passop said it would try and meet with South African immigration authorities but if this failed it would reserve its rights to take action to oppose what it described as  "draconian tactics of deportation."

Zimbabweans began flooding across the border to South Africa after the Movement for Democratic Change nearly beat Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in 2000 elections. Those elections sparked violence against MDC supporters in most parts of Zimbabwe.

By 2007, with little food in the shops, and a worthless Zimbabwe currency, many more Zimbabweans fled to South Africa in search of work.