Zimbabweans in South Africa await court decision on their permits


The fate of more than 178,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa hangs in the balance as the Pretoria High Court reserved its judgment on Monday on whether the Department of Home Affairs can appeal an earlier ruling that declared the termination of their permits unlawful.


The department and its minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, had challenged the court's findings that they did not follow proper processes in ending the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) programme, which allowed Zimbabweans who have been in the country since 2009 to work, study and do business legally.

The ZEP programme was introduced in 2017 as a successor to the Zimbabwe Special Permit (ZSP) programme, which itself replaced the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) that was launched in 2009. 

The ZEP permits were valid until December 31, 2020, but the department announced in September 2020 that it would not renew them and that the holders would have to apply for other visas or leave the country by April 30, 2021.

However, this decision was challenged by the Helen Suzman Foundation, a civil society organisation that advocates for constitutional rights and good governance. 

The foundation argued that the department violated the rights of the ZEP holders by not consulting them or giving them adequate notice or reasons for terminating their permits.

In February this year, a full bench of the high court agreed with the foundation and issued an interdict that prevented the department from arresting, deporting or detaining any ZEP holder for not having a valid permit. 

The court also ordered the department to extend the validity of the ZEP permits until December 31, 2021, and to allow the holders to enter and exit South Africa freely.

The department appealed this ruling, claiming that it had the discretion to end the ZEP programme and that it had given sufficient notice and reasons to the affected Zimbabweans. The department also argued that extending the ZEP permits would have negative consequences for immigration management and national security.

On Monday, the high court heard arguments from both sides and reserved its judgment until after recess. Judge Colleen Collis said that the court would advise the parties and upload the judgment on case lines as soon as it was ready.

The foundation said in a statement that it was not waging war against the government but was merely trying to protect the basic rights of the ZEP holders as long-term residents of South Africa.

"ZEP holders are not illegal immigrants. They are people who have lived perfectly lawfully in this country for 14 years. They have jobs, families, homes and businesses here. They contribute to our economy and society. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect," the statement said.

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