As many as 40,000 Zimbabweans could face deportation from South Africa after the application process for a new kind of residence permit came to a close on Wednesday.
The Department for Home Affairs announced that the previous type of permit, which made special dispensation for Zimbabweans to stay in the country, would no longer be valid after December 31, no matter what their original expiration date.
According to the department, there are around 245,000 holders of the Dispensation for Zimbabwean Project permit, first issued in 2010 and valid for four years. They were eligible to apply for the new Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP), but only 207,802 applications had been received by December 30, leaving a shortfall of 37,198 who potentially face deportation.
The new permit was announced in August after negotiations between the two countries with the deadline set for the end of 2014.
The Department for Home Affairs had been working with a private company, Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) to implement the application process which involved face-to-face appointments and supporting documentation, and said that 198,840 appointments had been booked through VFS.
However, Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper said that many applicants they had spoken to had experienced difficulties with the system, saying the website had often been down and the call centre which handled the booking system for appointments was “continually unreachable”.
Others said they could not obtain sworn affidavits from an employer and therefore failed to apply for the ZSP.
Large numbers of Zimbabweans emigrated to South Africa due to food shortages, political repression and economic crises under the rule of President Robert Mugabe.
The exact number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa is unclear, but estimates range from 1 to 3 million, according to fact-checking organization AfricaCheck.
South African Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba had previously implied that those who did not apply would face deportation. “According to our law, any foreigner staying here without proper documentation must be deported,” New Zimbabwe quoted him as saying. “But I hope all of those eligible to do so have applied and they will get their permits otherwise, it would be tough luck.”
The Department for Home Affairs did not respond when asked about likely fate of those who failed to apply for a permit.
In 2008, South Africa was the scene of violent attacks on areas housing immigrants, including Zimbabweans, in major cities in which at least 50 people were killed and over 35,000 displaced.