Rights NGOs working with Zimbabwean migrants said they were bracing for hundreds of thousands to be deported.
Richard Kadziwe of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), a member of a panel set up by the South African government to liaise with it on matters affecting Zimbabwean migrants, said: "We are not quite sure how to prepare for it [the resumption of deportations suspended since April 2009] – we are hoping the authorities will extend the deadline."
But Modiri Matthews, chief director of immigration services at the department of home affairs, rejected suggestions of a massive blitz against Zimbabwean migrants at the end of the year.
"We don’t have the capacity for one to go looking for Zimbabweans without documents, and imagine what we would look like as a government if we did something like that – going off on trucks rounding up Zimbabweans.
"And around that time – 31 December – we have other issues to handle as we have a lot of travellers in and out over the Christmas and New Year period.
"There will be proper investigations to see if people have outstanding asylum-seekers’ claims – their status will be verified before they are rounded up."
Improved conditions in Zimbabwe?
The South African government in September 2010 set the January deadline for the resumption of deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans on the grounds that conditions had improved in Zimbabwe sufficiently to revoke a moratorium on expulsions.
Matthews explained: "The situation in Zimbabwe is not the same as last year when the economy was still struggling and the cholera outbreak was ongoing. We felt there was no need for a special dispensation for Zimbabweans, and [that] they should now be treated like any other migrants from our neighbouring countries."
The International Monetary Fund said on 8 November that Zimbabwe "is completing its second year of buoyant economic growth after a decade of economic decline," but warned that "political stability" was also key to "consolidating [the] gains." President Robert Mugabe’s announcement that elections will take place in 2011 has been greeted with concern by NGOs, who fear they could trigger fresh violence.
In April 2009 South Africa placed a moratorium on deportations, introduced a 90-day visa on demand for Zimbabwean passport holders and was on the verge of issuing a special permit allowing them to work and reside in South Africa for up to three years – something hailed by many rights NGOs. But that did not happen.
Before the moratorium, at least 300,000 Zimbabweans were being deported every year – the cause of a significant strain on the department of home affairs, said Tara Polzer, a senior researcher with the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
"We are offering them a lot more now. We have bent over backwards to help," said Matthews. "Zimbabwean nationals who are working, conducting business, or studying in South Africa will be issued with a working permit, business permit, or study permit when they show their passports."
Slipping through the cracks
But there are many casual workers who will slip through the cracks, say NGOs, who are also concerned about the many disabled people who were unable to access services in Zimbabwe and crossed the border in recent years.
NGOs reckon it is hard for casual labourers to get letters from their employers. "Many of them who fled Zimbabwe in a hurry do not even have passports," said Selvan Chetty, deputy director of Solidarity Peace Trust, a faith-based rights organization working with Zimbabwean migrants.
Braam Hanekom of People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), an NGO helping displaced people and refugees in South Africa, said he gets hundreds of phone calls from informal traders and casual workers.
ZEF’s Richard Kadziwe said informal traders needed to apply for licenses from local government authorities and "show receipts of payment as proof of employment". But Chetty said not many were aware of this. "They are even frightened of approaching the authorities."
Kadziwe said his NGO was working round the clock talking to employers to persuade them to issue letters. "We are trying our best to ensure that we can help as many as we can before the deadline."
"The authorities should extend the deadline. I think it is particularly hard for the disabled – given the state of medical services in Zimbabwe," said PASSOP’s Hanekom.
The government’s decision "was constructed in the interests of the South African economy and the motivation was not humanitarian. South Africa is taking care of its own interests like any other country but the question is – with so many vulnerable people involved – this could become a very big human rights issue," said Polzer, adding that deportations could lead to violence.
The FMSP estimates that 1-1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa. But proving how many of these might be undocumented is "extremely complicated" as "some have the 90-day visa at the moment" or "are moving through the asylum-seeker process," said Polzer.