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Are undocumented Zimbabweans stranded in South Africa?

02 May 2020 at 18:35hrs | Views
The developments of the past three (3) months have exposed the vulnerable people of communities around the world to unprecedented suffering. COVID-19 is a disease that has exposed how the systems of the world are poorly set up, largely benefitting the affluent in societies and neglecting the poor. Communities that are hardest hit in such times are those that have long standing vulnerabilities such as undocumented people in various countries around the world. Since independence, in 1980, Zimbabweans have been emigrating to various countries, for a number of different reasons. Soon after independence in 1980, the bulk of the people that left the newly born Zimbabwe were former white Rhodesians. Their emigration was rationalised as good riddance of a group that was not willing to accept Black Majority Rule. For this reason, no-one really paid attention to their reasons.

Beginning 1983 (to 1987) a new group of emigrants surfaced. They were seeking safer places due to the genocide that was ongoing - the Gukurahundi. This time they were blacks, and part of the revolutionaries that had fought the war of independence. Once again, the rationalisation given was that they were not accepting the new political realities in the country, hence they were dissidents. Such rationalisation could not hold water for long, as the turn of the new century revealed. By the year 2000, more and more Zimbabweans were leaving their home country. The explanation that these people were anti-government could not account for the whole cross-section of the population leaving the country. Soon it became clear that these emigrants were moving due to economic reasons. A clean thread can be seen across all the emigrants from Zimbabwe, since 1980, that the major issue was economic in nature.

Today, almost 2 million Zimbabweans are in South Africa, and a good number of them are undocumented. This presents a fundamental challenge, both to the undocumented communities in South Africa and to the government of South Africa. The lockdown in South Africa (at levels 5, 4, and 3) implies that many undocumented people are not able to participate in economic activities that would put bread and butter on their dinner tables. Realising the impact of the lockdown, the South African government has since announced a ZAR 500 billion stimulus package. However, this package is only accessible to citizens, documented people, and legal entities. This leaves the undocumented communities in South Africa bare, and with no where else to turn. As it stands, by Monday 27 April 2020, about 800 such undocumented Zimbabweans had contacted the Zimbabwean Embassy and Consulates indicating their intention to be repatriated home. This was announced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retired Major General Sibusiso Moyo. The challenge with this attempt is that the Lockdown in South Africa still does not allow movement of people in such huge numbers. The Foreign Affairs Minister hinted that his ministry is in talks with the South African government in order to facilitate the repatriation. The decision for repatriation is not an easy one because upon arrival at the Zimbabwe boarder, the returnees will have to face mandatory quarantine and a host of other procedures, as implemented by the Ministry of Health and Child Care. Effectively, the undocumented Zimbabweans (and perhaps any other nationality) in South Africa are finding themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard surface.

The chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament, Mr Kindness Paradza, indicated that there are plans to extend a substantive and ongoing registration process to all undocumented Zimbabweans in South Africa. He said "there is need to document such Zimbabwean nationalities such that their children will not become Stateless". This is a welcome effort from the government, however, this is a long-term solution to the problem. By the time these ideas will see the light of day, many undocumented Zimbabweans would have sunk in this quagmire. The only reasonable option left, for the undocumented, is to survive on donations. There are a number of organisations that have risen to the challenge and are addressing this very problem. One such organisation is the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa (ZCSA). For sometime now, the ZCSA has been developing a database of the undocumented Zimbabweans with an intention of assisting the undocumented in times of need. Coincidentally, COVID-19 has hastened the times of need. At the present moment, the ZCSA was caught on its back foot as it had only just begun collating such a database. Notwithstanding their lack of preparedness, the efforts of the ZCSA are noble and must be commended.

To date, the ZCSA has been collecting donations, gathering food and distributing to the vulnerable communities. The process of distributing food among these vulnerable communities has tended to create gatherings. On these gatherings, the mandatory social distancing protocols are not always observed, hence creating conditions of possible spread of COVID 19. The undocumented people have to choose between infection by COVID 19 or death through hunger and starvation. This is an obvious and simple choice. They would rather be infected than face starvation. By the way, there is an 80% chance of survival without symptoms, and a further 13% chance of survival with mild to severe symptoms. So, the total chance of survival hovers somewhere around 87% to 93% depending on your immune system and the underlying conditions. Certainly, when faced with hunger, these are odds someone can willingly take. The downside to this line of reasoning is that the spread of the disease would then take a multiplicative effect. Many more people will be infected, and general public health will be at risk.

With these obvious challenges clearly visible, the governments of South Africa and Zimbabwe need to work together. Zimbabwe can not pretend that it has no responsibility over its people in South Africa. While Zimbabwe does not have jurisdiction in South Africa, it must be willing to take responsibility for its people. In times like these, the Zimbabwean government must offer South Africa some funds to be used for undocumented Zimbabweans in that country. This is not a huge ask. Such funds may save the lives of many people. In fact, if such an agreement were to be struck between the two countries, the risk of targeted Xenophobia against Zimbabweans may be greatly reduced. On Twitter, there are many calls made by South Africans castigating EFF and its leader Julius Malema, arguing that South Africa can not extend its limited resources to everyone particularly "foreigners". The tone of such rants tend to take a combative and dismissive posture. Since South Africa has taken the route of quantitative easing in order to address the COVID 19 challenges, it is very likely that inflation will start rising in South Africa in the post COVID 19 period. The Xenophobic rants will increase. The Zimbabwean undocumented community will be at greater risk. However, if the Zimbabwean government makes such overtures to South Africa, it is likely that the perception in South Africa will be that of Zimbabwe willing to pull up its weight in these difficult times.

The obvious counter argument to my proposal is that Zimbabwe does not have the money required to commit to such undertakings. The argument would go on to list a whole host of other problems Zimbabwe has, and pose a question: "With all these challenges, is it wise to spend resources towards some unknown people in a foreign land?". Clearly, this is an argument taken by those who do not want to be responsible for whatever they do. First, migration of people from Zimbabwe was caused by failed economic management in Zimbabwe. Secondly, South Africa has already played a significant part in helping its brother (Zimbabwe) during times of difficulty. Thirdly, the South African government continues to be committed to handling undocumented Zimbabwean in the most humane way possible. Now, what is wrong with Zimbabwe stepping up to assist; not assisting South Africa, mind you, but assisting its people in South Africa? Without Zimbabwe making efforts to assist its people in South Africa, then indeed, the undocumented Zimbabweans are stranded.

Kernan Mzelikahle is an apolitical analyst, and may be contacted by cellphone on +263775195334, or by email on, twitter handle is @Mzelikahle. This article and others like it may be found on Mthwakazi Forum website:

Source - Kernan Mzelikahle
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