Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi has extended exemption permits to Zimbabwean nationals for a period of twelve months to allow holders to apply for a necessary visa under the Immigration Act.
In a gazette and statement published on Home Affairs’ website on Friday (7 January), Motsoaledi said that these exemptions will expire on 31 December 2022.
The gazette states that no holder of the exemption can be arrested, detained or ordered to depart for not having a valid exemption permit, and may be permitted to enter into or depart from South Africa during this time period.
The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit was first introduced in 2009 by then-Home Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as a temporary solution to a growing refugee crisis related to Zimbabwe. While the dispensation was initially catering to a few thousand people, it quickly ballooned to over 400,000 individuals.
Bloomberg had previously reported that as many as 200,000 Zimbabweans would be forced to return home from South Africa as the exemptions expired at the end of 2021.
South Africa has a population of about 60 million, including approximately three million migrants, according to government statistics. Many are Zimbabweans driven south by two decades of politically linked violence and economic collapse. The majority are undocumented and do not hold a permit.
The cabinet voted to end the exemption program after the ruling African National Congress suffered its worst ever electoral performance in municipal and national elections. ActionSA, an anti-immigrant party formed by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, won 16% of the votes in the city in its first race, and a large proportion of the ballots in the capital, Pretoria.
South Africa has been plagued by bouts of xenophobic violence since at least 2008, with foreigners often accused of taking jobs in a country where a third of the workforce is unemployed.
The decision to end the permits drew a chorus of complaints from human rights groups that threatened to mount a court challenge.
Activists have argued that Zimbabweans who have been living in South Africa for more than a decade were going to be sent back to a country with few economic opportunities and high levels of political repression.
The exemption only applied to Zimbabweans who entered South Africa before the arrangement was enacted in 2009