POLICY AND POLITICS | Xenophobic Undertones in South Africa’s Non-renewal of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit
By Sonny Mncedisi Dube
Xenophobia can be defined as a strong and unreasonable dislike or fear of people from other countries [https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/xenophobia ]
Recently the Southern African region and the continent at large has been awash with news that the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit will not be renewed any further, expiring on the 31st of December 2021, with an ultimatum grace period of 12 months within which ZEP holders must apply under other permit regimes. The decision not to extend the ZEP was announced by South African Cabinet on the 25th of November 2021. As the deadline is today the 31st, it is of utmost significance to take a concise look at the nexus between policy and politics, with xenophobia taking a new dimension other than the widely known series of violent attacks. Prior to delving into the gist of the digest it is necessary to briefly look at the ZEP, its nature and definition.
Background to the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP)
As a point of commencement in this concise flashback, the acronym ZEP stands for Zimbabwe Exemption Permit a special permit program having begun when the South African government granted “special dispensation” for Zimbabweans who were in South Africa illegally, many of them having had fled violence and instability in Zimbabwe during the reign of Zimbabwe’s notorious leader Robert Mugabe. The South African government replaced the Special Dispensation for Zimbabweans with Zimbabwean Special Permits in 2014 and again in 2017 with the introduction of the ZEP.
The Zimbabwe Exemption Permit which replaced the Zimbabwe Special Permits allowed the qualifying Zimbabweans to work, study or conduct business in South Africa for up to four years. The South African government has been renewing these special permits in the past years hence with the recent Cabinet decision not to renew the them, the year 2022 will mark the first year since 2009 that special permits are not available to Zimbabwean nationals.
According to the South African Department of Home Affairs, a statistical number of people under the ZEP program is approximately 180 000. Despite the South African government having withdrawn Immigration Directive 10 of 2021, the decision not to renew the ZEP of course comes with unprecedented prejudices to the permit holders which include job loss and it has in the literal sense frustrated their eligibility for key services such as health, banking, education to mention just a few. In addition, the entire livelihoods of the ZEP holders have been adversely affected including even the proprietary rights of such peoples.
Looking at the humanitarian crisis posed by South African government not to renew the ZEP, it may as well be argued that xenophobia has taken a new turn. The general public is more…..to a xenophobia characterised by a series of violence but it must be submitted that the prejudices occasioned by this decision are xenophobic in nature. It will push a great deal of citizens into hunger, homelessness and lead to a spike in unemployment in Zimbabwe, burdening an economy that is already ailing in every respect. With respect to South Africa’s sovereignty and its right to make and adopt laws and policies within its frontiers best for its citizens, it must be noted that consideration should have been taken to the consequences of this decision. The decision does not merely affect Zimbabwe alone; it stretches to impact on a regional capacity creating a humanitarian crisis for Southern Africa as a region.
To substantiate the point being made by this whole digest, it must be noted that in recent Local Government elections in South Africa held last month in November, politicians and party leaders have been very vocal spurring anti-foreigner or anti-immigrant sentiments as part and parcel of their campaign strategy. This is true for Gayton Mckenzie Leader of the Patriotic Alliance political party who openly spoke against migrants and vowed to get rid of illegal foreigners in all the metros his party will control. While delivering his party’s manifesto on South African national television he uttered words to the effect that “South Africans don’t have jobs. White businesses (in South Africa) have found new slaves in foreigners. They don’t want to hire our local people because they belong to unions.” The same also went on to threaten deportation of foreigners and vowed to clean the streets of illegal foreigners.
In addition another political party Action SA led by Herman Mashaba also strongly expressed anti-immigrant sentiments and has always criticized the country’s immigration policy vowing to sweep the townships of all undocumented foreigners. ActionSA won 16% of the votes in Johannesburg and also significantly in the capital city.
During and after the elections, South African Pan-Africanist politician and leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Sello Malema criticized anti-immigrant sentiments and vowed to stand with foreigners even if it cost him the presidency in 2024. In his exact words he submitted that “….The EFF can do internal research to see how much this thing is hurting the EFF, but I am not prepared to take a platform to say ‘foreigners must go home’. I would rather not be a president of South Africa. I will be a president of my children at home. We will practice Cabinet issues there. I don’ want. You mean I should go and tell these hungry Zimbabweans to leave and when I tell them to leave, I send them where.”
It was not long after all the anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments by political parties, supporters and organisations that the government later in less than two months delivered its decision not to renew the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, a move which can be said to be anti-immigrant in nature. With respect aforesaid Cabinet decision has xenophobic undertones for the mere fact that it seemed to be inspired by the anti-foreigner sentiments that were prevailing at the moment. Taking cognisance of the fact that South Africa has seen a series of xenophobic violence on foreigners often accused of stealing jobs as in 2008, this subtle move might be the new turn in the concept of xenophobia.
As a point of departure, it must be emphasized as has been done throughout the span of this digest that there is always a nexus between policy and politics. Despite not directly influencing policy making, political leaders, their supporters and civil society can immensely shape policies hence one cannot help smell xenophobic undertones in South Africa’s refusal to renew the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SONNY MNCEDISI DUBE is a blogger who writes in his personal capacity