Johannesburg — SA IS to drop the visa requirement for Zimbabwean passport holders while also granting them special residency permits allowing them to work in the country.
Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that despite the formation of the unity government in Zimbabwe this year, there were still serious challenges.
"We've had to weigh things and look at the situation in Zimbabwe," she told reporters yesterday.
Rights organisations have long proposed granting Zimbabweans special status in SA until the situation in their country has stabilised. Large numbers of Zimbabwean economic migrants were blamed for clogging up the department's asylum-seeker process, which in any case did not recognise their appeal for refugee status.
The visa exemption was in line with the Southern African Development Community's (Sadc's) protocol on the free movement of goods and people. Visa-free entry into SA would give Zimbabweans a 90-day stay but would not convey any rights.
Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania would be the only Sadc countries whose nationals still needed visas to travel to SA, but even these are under review. "We're in the process of relooking at those," said home affairs' deputy director-general for immigration services, Jackson McKay.
Although the decision to grant Zimbabweans visa exemptions had already been made, the process would come into effect only after the authorities of the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding. This was expected to happen in the next few weeks.
Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said the visa-exemption decision was an acknowledgement that migration patterns between Zimbabwe and SA "have probably changed permanently".
The proposed dispensation would work through a special permit that only Zimbabweans would qualify for. It would entitle a holder to a six- month stay in SA. McKay said it was not enough to grant a visa waiver as Zimbabweans were struggling to secure passports in their country and many were already in SA, living illegally. The special permit would merely regularise their stay.
He said the department would have to create capacity to verify Zimbabwean citizenship among applicants. Because other foreign nationals may try to forge the permit, it needed security features.
"It's not going to be an easy ride," said Gigaba. It was envisaged that the new plan would require co- ordination within several government agencies. "Other government departments have to come on board to play their part to ensure that the implementation of the decision will be smooth," Gigaba said.
Welcoming the easing of restrictions on Zimbabwean nationals, Tara Polzer, a senior researcher in the University of the Witwatersrand's Forced Migration Studies Programme, said it would contribute to greater safety and security in SA as the police could now focus on crime rather than on immigration policing.