Former Angolan refugees in South Africa are living in a catch-22 as the government remains silent on the renewal of residency permits or upgrading of their legal status to permanent residency.
Caught in uncertainty, former Angolan refugees in South Africa are anxiously waiting to see what the future holds as their special permits near expiry.
Many of these former refugees arrived in South Africa in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in Angola. But in 2013, on advice from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they became the first refugees in South Africa to have their status ceased.
The Department of Home Affairs issued the former Angolan refugees with an Angolan Cessation Permit in 2013, but these expired two years later. Following the expiry of these permits, the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town had to enter into negotiations with the department to consider permanent residency for many of the former refugees.
Following court proceedings by Scalabrini, the department agreed to grant rights of permanent residency to many of the Angolans who were applying for an Angolan Special Permit (ASP). It started issuing the former applicants with permits, which had four conditions attached to them, including the right to work and study.
They did not, however, give the holder the option of permanent residency, and the permits weren't renewable or extendable beyond the end of 2021, when all the ASPs expire.
South Africa is home
It is this uncertainty about what happens after their permits expire that has many former Angolan refugees worried. Many of them have lived in South Africa for most of their adult lives and it is home to them. The home affairs department has been silent on the matter.
Rosa Zeruia Gupite, 30, has spent most of her life in South Africa after fleeing Angola with her family in 1992. They lived in Namibia for a while, before her father moved to South Africa. The rest of the family joined him in 1997.
Gupite, like her family, has built a life in South Africa and has no intention of returning to a country that is almost foreign to her. They live on a farm outside Cape Town and Gupite works for a medical oxygen supplier in Kuils River.
While many former Angolan refugees opted to move back when it was declared safe, the Gupite family chose to remain in South Africa.
"I think my parents are also at the age where they are settled," Gupite says. "Although they don't have everything in life, they are content with what they've got. So they are comfortable and settled in South Africa. Especially with my mom, she's got health issues. So going back [to Angola], the health system is not up to standard."
"We still have a few relatives there, but I've got no connection with Angola," she continues. "I can't see myself going back, to be honest. This is home. With all the problems we are going through, to me this is still home. I definitely don't want to go back."
Gupite adds that it was a struggle doing normal day-to-day things such as opening bank accounts, renewing licences and applying for loans because of the ambiguity surrounding her family's legal status in the country.
"It's things that you think are small things. When I apply to study, they require a valid permit, a valid passport. That's another problem - our passports, getting them becomes an issue. I applied in January and I just got it recently," she says.
"My bank card expired and I couldn't renew it. I couldn't do anything. You make do with what you have, basically," Gupite says. "Going to the bank to apply for a home loan is almost impossible. They don't even give us a 100% loan. Work. If I want to look for another job, it is basically pointless. The minute my permit expires, it is a risk for them."
She adds: "Most people just stay in jobs because it is just safer ... It's not like we don't want to do it, we can't do it because we require valid passports and permits. There's no leeway to say 'look at the circumstances'."
Gupite is involved with the Angola Cessation Committee, which has been trying to communicate with the South African government about the future of former Angolan refugees in the country since at least January this year to discuss their futures and what alternatives are available.
Scalabrini advocacy officer Lotte Manicom says such a meeting was "critically important" for the South African government and the former Angolan refugees.
"The issuance of the ASP permits has been administratively challenging, with several people awaiting rectifications on erroneous permits, or awaiting permit issuance. In the meantime, jobs, businesses and studies are at risk as the person is seemingly undocumented," she says.
"Although they technically have legal stay in South Africa, they are exposed to the risk of detention by the authorities. To make matters worse, Angolan passports are expiring and most Angolans can only renew a passport from Angola, but are banned from South Africa if they leave without the permit. They are stuck in an administrative, Kafkaesque catch-22," she says.
Manicom explains that the failure of the home affairs department to deal decisively with the long-term futures of the former refugees has placed many people in precarious positions.
"Hundreds of spouses and children of Angolan refugees have been forced into undocumented states through no fault of their own, with no options to document themselves. The creation of a pool of undocumented people - who desperately want to be legally documented in South Africa - is not in the interests of the South African government itself, nor the affected community," she says.
Gupite agrees. "It's so, so frustrating. You literally don't know what to do next. You can't move forward, you can't move backwards. You're literally just at a standstill," she says. "There are people who are still waiting for their permits, because it is such a frustrating process because these permits expire in 2021. It is very frustrating and very tiring. Because it is such a cycle."
Suzana Simão Antonio, 27, is another former Angolan refugee who has spent most of her life in South Africa.
"It's been really frustrating. When our permits first expired, it took two years just to get some sort of feedback. We then got four more years with a new permit instead of permanent residency," she says.
Antonio says she was grateful her employers were fully aware of her struggles to get the right documentation and were supportive of her during this process. Many other former Angolan refugees weren't as lucky with accommodating employers.
Department of Home Affairs spokesperson David Hlabane denies that there were any backlogs in the issuing of permits for the former Angolan refugees. "The department is working on a long-term solution," he says. "An announcement will be made before the permits expire.
"We issued 1 659 Angolan Special Permits in 2018, valid until 2021," he says. "There is no backlog for Angolan Special Permits. They were all completed."
Hlabane says those wanting to apply for permanent residency can do so by approaching the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs (SCRA) and applying for certification. "Once this is approved, the person is issued with a certificate from SCRA that he or she uses to apply for permanent residence," he says.
But people such as Gupite and Antonio say only families who had the money to approach and involve lawyers could do that.
VFS Global, which the department used to outsource the application and issuing of the Angolan Special Permits, initially agreed to have the process finalised by the middle of last year. However, that has not happened.
Responding to questions, a VFS Global spokesperson said: "VFS Global's role is limited to scheduling appointments, acceptance of applications, enrolling biometrics, acceptance of fees, submission of applications to the Department of Home Affairs and returning the outcomes back to the applicant/s. The adjudication of the permit applications is done by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). VFS Global has no role in the decision-making process."
In the meantime, people such as Gupite and Antonio are living in a state of limbo as the time left on their permits runs out and they wait for clarity on what happens next.