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A LOT of Zimbabweans will undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief now that South African Home Affairs has granted them a special dispensation to renew their permits for a further three years until 2017.

Most of the permits are due to expire at the end of this year and there was uncertainty surrounding the fate of those in possession of those permits.

Many were already envisaging horrific outcomes like deportation after spending a few nights in a repatriation centre like Lindela.

This reprieve means that Zimbabweans who are holders of permits have the next three years to organise themselves before embarking on a mass exodus back home.

This, however, only applies to the 245 000 who were issued with permits since the project began in 2009.
Now that approximates to a quarter of a million Zimbabweans.

This figure does not take into account illegal and other undocumented immigrants. Figures being bandied about estimate that the Zimbabwean population in South Africa ranges from anything between 1,5 million and three million.

I use a range because no one has ever been able to substantiate the number of Zimbabweans actually living in South Africa.

Even Statisics South Africa cannot say with certainty how many Zimbabweans are residing in the country. According to their data there are about 1,7 million (2011 Census) non South Africans residing in the country.

This figure doesn’t just comprise Zimbabweans, but other nationals like Ethiopians, Europeans, Mozambicans and Nigerians, just to name a few. Immigration control has become a nightmare for the South African authorities.

The line between those seeking political asylum and economic refuge has become blurred over the years. Many Zimbabweans applied for political asylum not because they were genuinely under threat of political persecution, but because they simply sought to regularise their stay in South Africa.

Truly speaking, the bulk of Zimbabweans are economic migrants as opposed to being refugees.

However, economic strife does not qualify for political asylum under international law. There is no doubt that Zimbabweans are indeed the largest immigrant group. Ease of access and entry has facilitated volumes of our country folk who are now living in SA.

Even where passage has not been aided by a work permit, non-skilled people have merely border jumped and swum across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to find refuge across the border.

Zimbabweans have been coming to seek work in South Africa long before the economic meltdown. My own grandfather worked in the gold mines. That was back in the day when “iGoli” was indeed the city of gold built on the back of the glittering mineral.

When they made their annual pilgrimage back home, they would wear long coats which earned them the nickname injiva.

The Johannesburg they knew back then has since evolved. With a shrinking economy and high unemployment rates, it is becoming difficult for the new immigrant to eke a decent living. Even menial jobs like domestic work are hard to come by.

Some immigrants have been forced to subsist on a life of crime and grime ranging from cash-in-transit heists, drug dealing, hijacking and prostitution. Zimbabweans are generally viewed as a threat and are accused of being in competition for jobs with South Africans.

The spiralling unemployment rates in South Africa which were reported at 25% (QES, 2014) in the second quarter of 2014 have aggravated the issue. It is the unskilled and employed who exhibit the greatest antagonism as they feel they have more to lose than to gain from the existence of foreigners like Zimbabweans.

The xenophobic violence of 2008 still remains vivid in the minds of many. Since then xenophobic attacks have been sporadic, but clearly the undertones of xenophobia remain. Nonetheless the lingering question is: What is the future of Zimbabweans in South Africa?

Those with permanent residence and citizenship might not have to answer this question, but what happens to that staggering figure of a quarter of a million when their permits expire?

Anyone who has lived in the Diaspora will at some time in their lives have to answer the difficult question of what they do when they return home. For some it’s an easy answer like establishing their own business if they are entrepreneurial. But what does the former waiter who had been tending to tables at Ocean Basket for the past five years do?

With Zimbabwean unemployment reportedly at 50%, clearly employment opportunities do not abound.

It is clear that the economy will have to grow in leaps and bounds over the next three years to absorb the influx of returnees.

Anyway, we have three years to see how this story will pan out. In the meantime we can wait with bated breaths before we exhale.

Sue Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist.

You can follow her on Twitter @SueNyathi

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