THOUSANDS of Zimbabweans have to queue for hours in a desperate race against time to retain their legal status in South Africa.
An estimated 200,000 working Zimbabweans in South Africa use legal Special Dispensation Permits that expire on the last day of the year.
However, former minister of Home Affairs Hlengiwe Mkhize gave a last-minute reprieve, allowing them to apply for a new work permit – the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit – by November 30.
Statistics from the South African embassy in Harare show visa applications have doubled since 2014. The embassy processes an average of 6,000 permits a month compared with 3,000 a month three years ago.
Maria Chiyangwa, a mother of two working as a helper, said: “Things are bad back home in Zimbabwe. It’s hard.
“I don’t mind going through a struggle to extend my permit in South Africa because at least here I can get a job [to] take care of my children. My husband and I are both this side; he’s a teacher and we are able to live with the help of his salary.”
Zimbabweans seeking permits have to apply at 10 Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) centres and have fingerprints taken. But the sheer number of people still to be seen by the end of November has many deeply concerned.
There is only one VFS centre in Gauteng. People there described waiting to be seen four to five hours after scheduled appointments. The Midrand centre sees on average more than 1800 people a day and VFS staff leave as late as midnight.
Jiten Vyas, chief operating officer for Africa at VFS Global, said: “As of 3rd November 2017, 161304 applicants have successfully filled their forms and 121357 applicants have successfully booked their appointments [countrywide].”
Thousands of appointments must be completed by month-end.
Mufaro Majange, selling funeral policies to Zimbabweans at the centre, said: “It’s always [crowded] like this – and there are so many [people] they have to serve. The [VFS] staff are doing a great job to be honest.”
Many Zimbabweans asked not to be identified. They feared jeopardising their visa applications. One man said people were treated like “dogs” waiting in the heat. A woman described the temporary toilets as “stinky”.
Another said: “VFS should have charged more per permit to pay for [appropriate] centres instead of making us crowd like this. This is pathetic.”
Zimbabweans pay R1,090 for a Zimbabwean Exemption Permit. Maxwell Rutsara, who sells juice, said applicants finishing late at night ended up “sleeping at the garage. They also sleep at a taxi rank near here.”
The managing director of Global Migration SA, Leon Isaacson, said: “The planning and facilities of VFS are clearly not good enough. It is a temporary solution and it is not adequate.”
One applicant questioned the rushed time frame. “I still want to believe the [SA] government is doing this to reduce the number of people on those permits.”
But Vyas of VFS said: “We are fully prepared and confident that we will complete the quantum of applications within the time lines as prescribed by the Department of Home Affairs.”
The department did not respond to queries about granting an extension for the process