Zimbabweans seeking passports continue to descend on their homeland?s consulate in central Johannesburg, desperate to avoid being deported from South Africa come early next year.

In early September, the South African government announced it henceforth wanted only Zimbabweans who were working, studying or owning businesses to remain in South Africa.  It announced a ?documentation project? whereby the migrants from north of the border could apply for four-year residence permits by December 31.  After this date, it said, all ?illegal? Zimbabweans would be deported.

NGOs say there are millions of Zimbabweans living in South Africa, most of them without legal residence documents.  They?ve been streaming into Africa?s strongest economy following sustained political and economic crises in Zimbabwe.

To apply for the new permits, the migrants must hold valid Zimbabwean passports.  Before they?re able to able to apply for the travel documents, they must get birth certificates and Zimbabwean identity documents at various Zimbabwe registration offices in South Africa - a process that?s adding to the mountain of bureaucracy facing those trying to remain legally in South Africa.

Utter chaos

?The main problem is that the only place where Zimbabweans can presently apply for passports is the Johannesburg consulate. It?s totally impractical to ask all these thousands, or even millions, of people to access a single consulate for passports in a country as big as South Africa,? says Gabriel Shumba, a lawyer and director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

He describes his recent visit to the consulate as ?a lesson in utter chaos.?

?There were about 2,000 people outside, yet they were only able to deal with a very minimal number of people [that day]; I think slightly over 100,? Shumba says.

Yet Zimbabwe?s consul general in South Africa, Chris Mapanga, insists ?everything is going well? with regard to his office?s processing of travel documents.

?We are processing many, many applications every day.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is not speaking the truth,? he told VOA.

But according to Shumba, it?s Mapanga who isn?t being truthful.

?People from Cape Town [almost 800 miles away] for example have been sleeping outside the consulate for [up to] five days.  So it is really quite ridiculous to say that the Zimbabwean government has the capacity to handle that multitude of applications,? states Shumba.

Mapanga responds that his government, in cooperation with its South African counterpart, ?is boosting capacity all the time in order to absorb the number of applications coming through.  And soon we will have offices in all the nine provinces [of South Africa], in cooperation with South Africa?s Home Affairs Department.?

Shumba says the Zimbabwean authorities have indeed opened offices in areas other than Johannesburg ? including in the cities of Pretoria and Cape Town ?  but he adds, ?These offices are merely to process applications; one cannot apply for passports at these offices.?

Zimbabwe government insists it will deliver

The leader in South Africa of the MDC, one of the parties that shares leadership in Zimbabwe?s government, is Austin Moyo, He is monitoring the Zimbabwean authorities? ability to deliver passports.

?In a meeting the consulate told us that a person will get his passport within six weeks.  Even if this is the case ? and we know it?s much longer usually that people wait ? it?s impossible that most Zimbabweans in South Africa will get passports in time.  There are just too many Zimbabweans living here,? Moyo says.

According to an official at the Zimbabwe consulate, 16,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa had applied for passports by late October.

Moyo responds, ?This low figure is proof that many of our people are being locked out of the system and will be deported next year, because we know that most of our people here do not have passports.?

When VOA put this to Mapanga, he responded, ?Your questions are absolutely negative.  The assumption is that the Zimbabwe government does not have the capacity to deliver passports.  The Zimbabwe government has never said it does not have the capacity to deliver the passports.  It is going to deliver the passports!?

Shumba says the consul general?s office isn?t entirely to blame for the ?snail?s pace? at which passport applications are moving in South Africa.  ?To be fair to Mr. Mapanga, the Zimbabwe government has failed to provide him with the many extra staff members needed to process this flood of new passport applications.  It also is not fair on him that his consulate is the only place in South Africa where Zimbabweans are able to apply for passports.?

South African government says it?s satisfied

South Africa?s chief of immigration, Jackie McKay, says his government is ?so far satisfied with the work the Zimbabwean authorities are doing to facilitate this [documentation] process.  We have had no complaints or any indication from them that they will not be able to deal with the [passport] applications? We have no reason to believe that they will not be able, now, to perform as expected.?

But Elinor Sisulu, a Zimbabwean academic, says there are ?plenty? of reasons to doubt Harare?s ability to deliver all the passports needed in time.

?There?s administrative chaos in Harare, and has been for quite some time now.  Zimbabwe?s Home Affairs Department is split between the MDC and ZANU-PF, and this is proving to be counterproductive,? she maintains.

Sisulu adds, ?I wish they [the South African government] would go on a proper fact-finding mission in Zimbabwe.  Then they would see the kind of suffering that ordinary Zimbabweans have to go through to try to get passports.?

Moyo says, ?The same passports that are being applied for here in [South Africa], they won?t actually be processed in Harare [because of the incompetence and administrative chaos there] where already there is a very huge backlog [of passport applications].?

Mapanga responds that he knows ?nothing? of such a backlog.  ?It is not true,? he emphasizes.

McKay says he can?t comment on reports of ?administrative chaos? in Zimbabwe. He reiterates the South African authorities will continue to trust their Zimbabwean counterparts to deliver.  ?We have commitments from the highest levels of government in Zimbabwe ? both from the MDC and ZANU-PF ? that they will be able to fulfill their part of the agreement with regard to this process, and we trust those commitments,? he said.

Tara Polzer, a senior researcher at Wits University?s Forced Migration Studies Project, is convinced the South African government is ?privately concerned? about its Zimbabwean counterpart?s performance thus far in the documentation process.

She says, ?It is completely understandable that the South Africans can?t go around publicly saying, ?we know our neighbors can?t do this' [deliver all the necessary passports before December 31].  But I am pretty sure that behind the scenes the South African government departments are aware of the practical issues here, and that they are working closely with their Zimbabwean counterparts on this.?