South Africa documents the undocumented

CAROLINE RUETSCH explores the impact of South Africa’s Zimbabwean Dispensation Project and finds that, outcomes of the process pending, it holds promise for regularising the status and improving the daily lives of undocumented migrants.

A good move.’ This is how an anonymous, undocumented migrant described South Africa’s Zimbabwean Dispensation Project (ZDP) during a recent interview in Cape Town.

Zimbabwean citizens make up by far the largest group of foreign nationals in South Africa, though their actual numbers are often the subject of exaggerated speculation. Many left their homes in Zimbabwe to escape food insecurity, economic hardship, the spread of disease such as cholera, unchecked due to a failing healthcare system, and political repression and violence.

Despite this variety of migration ‘push factors’, most Zimbabweans in South Africa are universally considered to be ‘economic migrants’. Due in part to the difficulty of meeting visa requirements, which are viewed by many as too  time-consuming, overly onerous or insurmountable, many ‘jumped the fence’ and entered South Africa illegally.

For this reason, many Zimbabweans lack not only the documentation they need to confirm their legal right to stay in South Africa, but also those required to prove their identity. With the aim of regularising the stay of undocumented migrants currently in the country, the South African department of home affairs (DHA) invited Zimbabweans to apply for special permits between 20 September and 31 December 2010, through the ZDP.

During this time, the department received 275 762 applications from migrants seeking documentation, and intends finalising the process by the end of July 2011.

Qualitative interviews conducted with several Zimbabweans in Cape Town during April and May of 2011 suggest that, among these research participants, approval for the objectives of the ZDP was high.

Less agreement was evident, however, on the issue of the effectiveness of actual implementation. Interviews suggest several controversial elements of the project as a whole. To begin, some suggested that there should have been broader consultation with a larger number of stakeholders, prior to the start of the ZDP’s application phase. For others, service delivery was inadequate, with long queues forming outside DHA offices, and the window period for submitting applications as too short.

A further complicating factor is that some interview participants expressed the view that Zimbabwean authorities did not respond quickly enough in order to supply the passports required by nationals in South Africa. Some found instructions and directives issued by the DHA to be confusing and unclear, and that changes made during the process were not communicated widely enough. Further, the question of why the dispensation was only open to Zimbabweans, and not migrants of other nationalities, was also raised.

Despite all these complications and questions, which made applications to the ZDP more difficult and time-consuming for interview participants, these were ultimately not a deterrent from applying altogether.

One question remains, however: the exact number of Zimbabweans in South Africa at present is unclear, but anecdotal and other reports suggests that there are significantly more undocumented Zimbabwean nationals in the country than the number of actual dispensation applicants. Why then did more not apply?

Vincent Williams, manager of the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), suggests that distrust among  undocumented migrants could be a contributing factor to the relatively low uptake numbers. ‘[Undocumented Zimbabweans] may have thought this was a way to catch them and send them back home,’ he said.

A female Zimbabwean interview participant also suggested that the costs associated with acquiring documentation were a potential deterrent, stating that the cost of a Zimbabwean passport was prohibitive, even for migrants earning above average wages.

PASSOP is a human rights organisation that advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in South Africa. Director Braam Hanekom commented that the ZDP largely targeted those in formal employment. Many migrants believe that they would be unable to afford the high fees charged for a passport, and have been discouraged by past negative experiences with migration management structures. This reluctance may have been further compounded by criticism of the ZDP, for example, by civil society organisations.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of the ZDP can only be assessed when all of the applications have been processed and the initiative concluded. It also remains to be seen whether or not those who are waiting for Zimbabwean passports are able to obtain these in good time. Furthermore, the success of this approach – in the eyes of migrants themselves – will be influenced by the percentage of applications approved.

If these issues are indeed overcome, the ZDP may indeed have been a ‘good move’. As Hanekom observes, processing so many applications from undocumented migrants is ‘no small achievement’. Importantly, for those whose applications are approved, the project will ultimately facilitate legal and safer travel, greater security of residence, and improved access to services such as healthcare and education, as well as private banking and credit. These have great potential to  significantly improve migrants going about their day-to-day lives in South Africa. This is certainly a step in the right direction.

Caroline Ruetsch is a Masters student in post-war recovery studies at the University of York.

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