Holders of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEPs) in South Africa that are set to expire at the end of this year deserve a chance to be heard and must legally challenge this termination, a South African lawyer has said.
In a twitter thread, a lawyer and governance specialist and analyst, Nicole Fritz, who is also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Helen Suzman Foundation, said migrants deserve an opportunity to plead their case.
The Helen Suzman Foundation holds the government to account on human rights.
She is also well-known also as a media columnist on politics and democracy in South Africa.
Last year, the South African government announced that it would not be extending ZEPs and urged current permit holders to move to other permits or leave the country by the end of December 2022.
The government made another reminder to ZEP holders in May saying those who wished to continue staying in Soluth Africa must migrate to other relevant work-related visas.
Fritz expressed surprise over threats the organisation had received after making an announcement of wanting to challenge the termination of ZEPs.
“It makes it clear how frightening it must be to be a migrant in South Africa right now,” she said. “And I don’t mean if you were born in Canada.”
Fritz said there were approximately 178 000 ZEP holders who have lawfully lived, worked and studied in South Africa for well over a decade.
She said even if all 178 000 ZEP holders had jobs that could be transferred to South Africans, the impact on South Africa’s unemployment rate would be “very small,” noting that “there are approximately 7.8 million unemployed South Africans.”
Fritz said studies had consistently shown that migrants helped create jobs within an economy and claimed a number of ZEP holders were micro-entrepreneurs, creating jobs in their communities.
“Their expulsion from South Africa will not only destroy their livelihoods but those of South Africans too,” she said.
She dismissed allegations that some ZEP-holders were a source of crime.
“But studies have shown again consistently that migrants are less likely to commit crimes than nationals,’ she said.
“That makes sense: migrants are far more vulnerably situated regarding the criminal justice system; far more likely to be preyed on by police; far less able to register complaints about their treatment.”
Fritz said when the ZEPs were first introduced as the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) they were supported by ‘careful’ policy considerations.
The DZP were implemented in 2009, whose objectives included providing amnesty to Zimbabwean nationals who were in possession of fraudulently obtained South African immigration documents and curbing their deportation.
Fritz said Zimbabwe’s economic collapse made it inevitable that large numbers of Zimbabweans would come to South Africa, so “the cost of policing and repeated deportations was so expensive that it made sense to give Zimbabweans a lawful way to remain in South Africa.”
She said it was ‘better and safer’ for South Africa to be able to properly and reliably record and track ZEP-holders within the systems rather than force migrants into undocumented status.
“Moreover, so many Zimbabweans were fleeing violence and persecution that we owed them protection under refugee law,” Fritz said.
“That is an obligation imposed on all countries under international law.”
Protection under refugee law is the same obligation that weighs on all countries and Fritz gave an example that this also applied in the United Kingdom and “that makes it so obscene that (UK Prime Minister) Boris Johnson would look to shrug that responsibility by paying Rwanda to do it for the UK.”
Fritz said since these special permits were in place for over a decade, holders had established lives in South Africa.
“Then in November 2021, the government announced with little notification and no consultation with ZEP-holders that the permits would lapse,” she said.
“ZEP-holders could migrate to other…visas (an illusory option as the vast majority will not qualify) or would need to leave South Africa. But none of the policy considerations which led to South Africa adopting the special permit system have changed.
“And the government doesn’t even maintain that they have. It hasn’t withdrawn the policy or sought to replace it. And so, it seems that this decision is without real, considered reason. But even if we agree on nothing else, I hope we can agree on this: if our government decides that you must leave your home, that you must give up your work, that your children may not go to school, then it at least must give you an opportunity to be heard, to make representations, to consider alternatives and to give you sufficient notice that you are able to plan your life, so that you are not treated as if your life is of no consequence.”
On the same note, Fritz said the Helen Suzman Foundation ‘entirely’ understood why so many South Africans are angry and frustrated at the unemployment, poverty, inequality and lack of security in their country.
“But the idea that termination of ZEP solves any of these enormous problems is wrong and political actors who say differently do so because it pays to scapegoat others as a distraction from governance failures and because stoking hatred and division is often an easier, cheaper path to leadership than principles and vision,” she said.