Maverick Citizen


Activists gather to discuss xenophobia and the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit

Activists gather to discuss xenophobia and the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit
Home Affairs offices in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth. The South African government has decided that the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit will not be renewed. (Photo: Joseph Chirume)

‘There are no illegal human beings and we have to stop using this word… they may not have proper documentation but they are not illegal’ – Anti-xenophobia activists.

The Southern African Liaison Office – an organisation focused on building national, regional and international cohesion – has held a discussion on xenophobia and the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) which expired in December 2021, affecting up to 250,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa. 

Government has decided that the permit will not be renewed.

“We must abhor xenophobia in the same way that we abhor racism and gender-based violence,” said Gabriel Shumba from the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum, adding that xenophobia “undermines the ubuntu that was preached by Archbishop Desmond Tutu”.

Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn said that anti-immigrant outfit Operation Dudula had claimed that his church premises were being used to harbour criminals and drug dealers. He said his church was a place of refuge for displaced migrants.

Verryn said police had told him there was no evidence linking the migrants living on church property to any crimes.

Verryn said that children were among the migrants when members of Operation Dudula began banging on the church doors and windows, demanding that the migrants come out. He said the children were afraid because they thought they were going to be killed.

“If we’re serious about creating a sustainable economy in this country and not seeing the ‘other’ as a threat, but as a partner, we would begin to capacitate employment, particularly of young people. 

“Absolutely no human being should be considered a pest, no matter who they are,” Verryn said.

Foreign nationals and refugees protest against xenophobia in South Africa after being evicted by law enforcement officials from their occupation outside the UNHCR offices in Greenmarket Square, Cape Town, on 30 October 2019. (Photo: Aisha Abdool Karim)

Dudzai Million from the ZEP campaign explained that Zimbabweans had forfeited other documents to get the now-expired ZEP, and that this would jeopardise their standing in the country. 

“The Department of Home Affairs is talking about people getting the mainstream visa, but most people went on the ZEP because they did not qualify for the mainstream visas… they cannot move to the mainstream visas now,” said Million. 

“We have a lot of children born in South Africa who have never been to Zimbabwe and who speak local languages… Some of them are domestic workers who get assistance from their employers in order for their children to get an education, and they will be stuck without a future should the permit not be renewed.”

Million believes that xenophobia filters down from those in power. 

“We feel like we have been targeted and that it is starting from the top, in that one day we are legal with a ZEP, and the next day we are not.”

Million told those attending the discussion that the conditions in Zimbabwe were only getting worse, with growing instability, human rights violations, police intimidation, no freedom of speech, no LGBTQI rights and no jobs. He said sanctions on Zimbabwe were affecting the poor and not the ruling elite. 

Unemployed builders and painters from Zimbabwe wait on a roadside for work in Cape Town, South Africa, on 20 May 2015. (Photo: EPA / NIC BOTHMA)

Sharon Ekambaram from Lawyers for Human Rights described xenophobia as a “crisis of humanity”. She said anti-foreigner sentiment in SA was a deliberate campaign to divert attention from government’s failure to deliver services to communities. 

“We need to remember, as we go towards 2024, that many political parties are scapegoating migrants… this talk of ‘flooding of migrants’ is lies,” said Ekambaram, adding that statistics showed migrant numbers falling in SA, probably as a result of xenophobia.

Ekambaram appealed to participants to join the anti-xenophobia movement, Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, on their upcoming Human Rights Day march through the streets of Hillbrow.

Speaking on behalf of the South African Human Rights Commission, Fatima Chohan, former deputy minister of home affairs, said: “The suggestion that we, as a nation, do not revile xenophobia as we do GBV is concerning. South Africa as a whole has not purged itself of its historic demons… Since democratisation, we have not forged a national effort to create a new outlook and a new perspective.”

Chohan said the media’s dealings with African migrants lacked humanity and focus on the lived realities of migrants, and that the constitutional right to security was not only for citizens, but for all who lived in South Africa. 

“We as individuals are all implicated… This must be a national effort, not an event. It must be a process and the end goal should be greater solidarity amongst all who live in South Africa.”

Representing Social Surveys Africa, Dr Tara Polzer Ngwato said: “We are not just looking at migration management policy here, we are also looking at xenophobia. We are coming up to uncertain South African and Zimbabwean elections and we know from history that narratives around migration are an easy way into power for populists.

It is absolutely essential that these conversations about migration policies are taken with a long-term view in mind,” Ngwato said. DM/MC


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