Relief agencies estimate that some 1.5 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa — many of them illegally — having crossed the border at the height of the economic crisis back home in the last decade.
However, many of these are facing possible deportation back home if they fail to regularise their stay in South Africa ahead of a December 31 deadline.
Zimbabwean officials have deployed a team to help process passports but applicants claim the exercise is moving at a snail’s pace with just over 120 000 having applied for SA visas by December 19.
South Africa has threatened to expel hose who fail to get their papers in order by the deadline.
"If they are not in by the 31st, they are out forever," Home Affairs Minister Dlamini Zuma said during a visit to inspect one of the processing centers during the week.
An SA analyst claimed President Mugabe would rather the migrants remain in South Africa, especially as Zimbabwe faces a crucial election next year.
The migrants are seen as likely voters for rivals to the long-standing Zimbabwean leader and his ZANU-PF party. They are also a source of crucial remittance payments that help steady the country’s wobbly economy.
"For ZANU, having these people outside the country and not able to vote is an advantage.
"As long as people can stay in South Africa and support people in Zimbabwe, it has been able to maintain some semblance of recovery," Loren Landau, director of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand said in an interview with Reuters.
Still, with unemployment at 25 percent, South Africa is itself under pressure from locals who blame the immigrants for the lack of jobst and increasing pressure on public services.
The problem stoked ethnic tensions that led to xenophobic attacks in 2008, which killed 62 and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Officials fear violence could flare again ahead of local elections planned for the first half of 2011 if South African politicians pander to jobless voters by calling for deportations of foreigners.