Zimbabweans in South Africa are being urged not to 'panic' over changes to work permit laws set to come into force later this year, with a leading refugee rights group saying it will engage the authorities on the way forward.
Concern has been high among many Zim nationals across the border, after South Africa's Cabinet resolved that work permits granted under the Special Dispensation period will expire this November. Part of that resolution is a requirement that new permits can be applied for, but only back in Zimbabwe.
The Special Dispensation period was introduced in 2010 to give those Zimbabweans working illegally in South Arica at the time a chance to regularise their stay. An estimated two million Zimbabweans are thought to have fled the political crisis back home for the relative security of South Africa, choosing to live illegally across the border.
Under the dispensation period, over 250,000 Zim nationals were granted four year work and study permits. The authorities also suspended the mass deportations of Zim nationals, that they had been undertaking until the dispensation was announced.
The deportations of illegal Zimbabweans have since resumed, and the news of the authorities toughening up its permit laws has sparked real fears of a return to the chaos experienced before. One SW Radio Africa listener said by email that "it is not a good idea" to leave South Africa without a guarantee of being allowed back. He added: "You don't even know whether you're gonna get it (permits) or not or when. What about our jobs, accommodation, installments, credits or (do) you have to resign?"
Diana Zimbudzana from the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum told SW Radio Africa last week that the resolution will see Zim nationals choosing to work illegally in South Africa once again. She explained that permit holders will not risk returning to Zimbabwe with no guarantee of receiving the documentation that will allow them re-entry to South Africa.
"The resolution is a sad development because it forces people back into a situation that the permits lifted them out of, and that was being illegal. Zimbabweans went out of their way to get these permits, but they won't forfeit their lives in South Africa if there are no guarantees they will get the permits again," Zimbudzana said.
These fears have also intensified after Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister said that South Africa's permit plans had not been communicated to them. Minister Kembo Mohadi was quoted as saying that the ZANU PF government was not in a position to offer any permits for Zimbabweans based in South Africa.
"The government only issues permits for foreigners who want to work here in Zimbabwe, not the other way round. As far as I am concerned permits for Zimbabweans who want to work in South Africa are done in that country not in Zimbabwe," he said.
But Braam Hanekom, the Director of the refugee rights group PASSOP, said Zimbabweans must stay positive.
"We are going to engage the government and find out the details and about the logistics and see if there is any possible way for people affected by the resolution to avoid returning to Zimbabwe," Hanekom told SW Radio Africa.
He said that logistically and financially, forcing people to leave the country just to return at a later stage "is chaotic". But he insisted it was not all bad news.
"We need to acknowledge that the government has given positive indications that Zimbabweans will be given another chance to get permits. When the Department of the Home Affairs proceeded with the dispensation project, they made it clear that it was a four year permit and made no undertaking that it would be renewable," Hanekom explained.
He added: "So it's good news that it looks like the government will allow Zimbabweans another chance to stay in South Africa."