With so much focus in South Africa on the imminent deportation of thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants at the moment, it is easy to lose sight of the real function of the Department of Home Affairs (the DHA). As the governing entity of immigration matters in South Africa, the DHA does not only focus on immigrants from one specific country, but is required to handle all immigration matters and cases of deportation.
This was emphasised last week by a deputy director-general in the DHA, Jackie McKay, in response to a question asked during a media briefing in Pretoria. ” … we target all nationals found to be without legal documentation, whether black or white, they are arrested and deported,” McKay stated.
Zimbabwean immigrants are, however, a case in point. Deportation of Zimbabwean immigrants stopped two years ago, so that a process of documentation could be undertaken. Now, in the final stages of this process, there is once again talk of wholesale deportations of Zimbabwean immigrants. The statistics of the DHA still claim that there are only about 1.5 million Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa, while other estimates arrive at a much higher figure. And only about 275000 applications for documentation have been received. Even if, as McKay has informed us, the DHA is going to apply “reduced requirements” in assessing these applications, it is likely that at least a million Zimbabwean immigrants haven’t applied for documentation.
The DHA has set the cut-off date for obtaining documentation at the end of this month. This does not seem to be realistic. Many Zimbabwean immigrants have voiced the concern that they may not be in possession of their permits by that time. Others may also be holding on to fake papers in the hope that they will simply be given amnesty if they are ever arrested. Many more may simply not have bothered to apply for documentation because even if they are arrested, there is a strong current of rumour that the South African police will accept bribes from illegal immigrants. There is also the repeated assertion by some immigrants that deportation is a waste of time because they will simply return to South Africa.
It is difficult to know what the eventual solution to this situation is. The fact that the DHA seems serious about addressing the situation would appear to be encouraging, but then I cannot see how very short-term deadlines, or even a two-year period, are sufficient to address a long-term problem that has been building up over a period of roughly a decade. Possibly the DHA should take more time to document all immigrants, Zimbabwean immigrants included. The introduction of “reduced requirements” is laudable, but one wonders then why Zimbabwean immigrants need to go through the rigmarole of a permit application process anyway. Why can’t the DHA approve a new legislative regime in which a Zimbabwean passport can be used in South Africa to get employed and operate economically, even if it’s just in the interim? What will cost less in the long run? Are we thinking in terms of the long run?