AFTER some torturous months of uncertainty surrounding their stay in South Africa as their permits neared expiry, thousands of Zimbabwean nationals in the country are now contending with threats by local banks to freeze their accounts by end of the month when the permits elapse.
Some 250 000 holders of the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP), who are among millions that have fled economic and political crises to the neighbouring South Africa, are in panic mode as none of the new permits would be issued by December 31.
The Department of Home Affairs recently extended the deadline for applications to the end of January.
This will pave way for the issuing of the new Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP).
As the expiry of the current permits draw to an end, some South African banks have alerted Zimbabwean account holders to the possibility of freezing their accounts pending the issuance of new permits.
Hordes of Zimbabwean clients banking with ABSA, Capitec, First National Bank (FNB), Nedbank and Standard Bank confirmed receiving notifications to renew their permits lest their accounts were frozen.
"I have been warned to bring with new documents before the December 31 expiry date. After receiving this message, I promptly rushed to the bank hall to verify. Officials plainly told me they will freeze it if no permit is received," said Mlungisi Ndebele of Alexandra township north of Johannesburg.
A Zimbabwean client with the same bank raised similar concerns.
"Now, if banks freeze our accounts, they would have skinned us alive! I have kept all the money for my three-year savings with the intention to purchase a car and a house," Ruzvidzo Takawira of Bramley, Johannesburg said.
Advocate Gabriel Shumba, executive director of Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), said freezing or suspension of ZSP permit holders' accounts on December 31 would be "highly regrettable."
"It is insensitive for banks to freeze accounts pending the adjudication process," Shumba said.
He said such would be "highly provocative" arguing the banks in question were usually too happy to entice these vulnerable group of the Zimbabwean populace.
"To freeze the accounts seems to make the predetermination statement that those who have applied will not succeed. It is the customers' money and they are entitled to fair practice. Why did these rogue and uncaring banks make an announcement beforehand, asking our people to retrieve their savings beforehand?," Shumba asked.
He called upon affected permit holders to contact ZEF.
"Enough is enough. These exploitative practices go unchecked in respect of asylum seekers and refugees too. We need immediate government regulation of these and other malpractices," Shumba, who is also Gauteng High Court Counsel, said.
Ngqabutho Mabhena, Chairman of Zimbabweans Living in South Africa, said they had engaged the Department of Home Affairs, which he said pledged to engage the banks to redress the issue.
"Initially, some banks sent out notices saying they will close down bank accounts on December 31 if their clients who are on special permits do not submit new permits," Mabhena said.
He advocated for banks to notify give clients a grace period up to January 31 when applications for permits close.
"We will continue to engage with the banks through the Department of Home Affairs," Mabhena assured.
Luke Dzipange Zunga, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Global Forum, said the organisation was aware some members had received "threatening notifications" from banks intending to suspend their accounts if their work or study permits were not renewed by December 31.
He however pointed out some ministerial changes as well as the suspension and reinstatement of Home Affairs Director-General, Mkhuseli, Apleni, had impacted on the status of the Zimbabwean permit holders.
There were two ministerial changes this year as Hlengiwe Mkhize replaced Malusi Gigaba in a cabinet reshuffle in March. Ayanda Dlodlo would later replace her in another reshuffle in October.
Zunga added Apleni was in between the reshuffles suspended.
"What is important to highlight these threats paused by the bank letters so that Department of Home Affairs quicken the process renewing the permits. The DG (director general), who was in charge at the start and running of this Zimbabwe Special Permits dispensation had been suspended and only won his case and returned to work recently," Zunga said.
He said this could be among the reasons behind the delay in finalising the renewal of the permits.
"Highlighting the plight of these Zimbabweans affected is important so that the process is pushed faster at Home Affairs. Banks would say they are following the law. If the permits are not renewed the accounts would be closed," Zunga said.
He called Zimbabweans to remain "composed" as the Department of Home Affairs, through VFS, were processing their renewed permits.
"This (closure of accounts) has always been the case for those whose permits were not renewed. There are agents helping those who have applied to ensure proper delivery of documentation, and the best advice is for the affected persons to talk to their NGOs for assistance," Zunga said.
Zunga added, "There is law that to open and run a bank account the holder must have a valid permit to be in the country. Department of Home approved the renewal of current holders. There are many reasons why permits may not be renewed quickly. Each case has to be looked at on its own merit. The difficulty is that, until the end of December, it is not clear how many were not renewed and what the reasons are."
Zunga said until the end of December, it would be unmerited to say Home Affairs had failed the Zimbabwean applicants.
Thabo Mokgola Home Affairs spokesman, said his department had notified banks and companies that employed holders of ZSP to continue accepting them as the department processed the ZEP permits.
"Companies, including banks, have been notified that applicants who are in possession of ZSPs expiring on 31 December 2017 must be allowed to continue to transact provided they submit proof of application for a mainstream visa or a ZEP. Proof can be a VFS receipt or proof of payment," Mokgola said.
Matthew Hunter, ABSA Bank Head of Retail Transactional Products, said the financial institution would not freeze or suspend accounts of those holding the ZSP provided they had proof of renewal of permit application.
"Absa acknowledges the recent pronouncement by the Department of Home Affairs on the Zimbabwe Special Permits, which are due to expire on December 31, 2017. Absa advises any of its customers that may be affected by this to present the bank with proof that they have applied for an extension of their permits, so as to ensure an uninterrupted banking relationship," Hunter told CAJ News.
Ross Linstrom, Standard Bank spokesperson, said the bank would not immediately suspend the accounts of Zimbabwean permit holders but would not provide any new or additional financial services until the customers in question had provided a renewed permit.
"Like all other foreign nationals, the bank is required to bank foreign nationals that are in the country legally. This can be ascertained by a valid permit, which is requirement in terms of the Immigration Act of South Africa," Linstrom said.
"Standard Bank does not freeze accounts based on an expired permit. We will maintain their banking services and these can be accessed in the normal course of business and banking activity. The bank will however not provide any new / additional services until the customers provide a renewed permit. This applies to all foreign national customers," Linstrom added.
First National Bank (FNB) said it would with relevant laws regarding the administration of bank accounts held by foreign nationals.
"The bank will not freeze the bank accounts of customers who have applied for their special permit. Due to the confidential nature and the unique facts of each case, FNB is unable to provide information on individual accounts," the bank responded to enquiries by CAJ News.
Banks such as Capitec and Nedbank would not immediately respond to questions sent to them at the time of going to press.