While Home Affairs has at last granted an extension for Zimbabwean Exemption Permits, this has not dispelled anxiety for some parents travelling this December.
Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi announced on 1 December that new permits would be issued to holders of the Lesotho Exemption Permit (LEP) and the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) which will be valid for two more years, until 29 November 2025.
While this announcement will have brought relief to permit holders and their families, some still face uncertainty and confusion.
An anxious parent contacted the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), seeking clarity on whether they could travel outside South Africa and back with their two children. One of the children has a study visa, while the other has an accompanying minor visa. Both parents are ZEP holders. The children’s visas and the parents’ ZEPs expired on 31 December 2021.
“There was no way we could apply for renewal for them [the children] since VFS stressed that we should first wait for our outcomes when we tried to apply for them,” the parent told Cooking365.
The company VFS Global processes visas in partnership with Home Affairs.
The parent received conflicting responses from Home Affairs employees about whether he and his family could travel out of the country for a holiday without hassle, and no official was willing to put it in writing.
Cooking365 contacted the department, which confirmed that ZEP holders are allowed to travel out of South Africa.
“Yes, they will be able to travel outside and back into SA; they have to demonstrate that they have their ZEP permits. That is the official document that they are using until such time that they’ve properly applied for the new one and it has been issued,” said David Hlabane, the Home Affairs media manager.
Hlabane said at the time the parents tried applying in 2021, there were no exemption permits or renewals to apply for.
“That is why VFS could not process any request to grant an extension or a new permit at that time because there were no permits that were being processed.”
While the parents could travel in and out of the country, the same would not apply to the children.
“It is a separate case altogether. Those two [children] will then have to follow the path on the mainstream immigration side, they have to follow the process there,” he said.
Carol Lemekwana from Lawyers for Human Rights said the failure to leave the country when their visas had expired placed them on overstay.
“This means should they travel out of the country, they will be placed on the undesirable person’s list, which means they will not be able to return to the country,” she said.
The parent said he was fearful of this outcome. “I am fearing that they will consider [the children] as undesirable when we could not apply for them due to our ZEP circumstances, so I pray that the DHA will waiver and allow them to travel to and fro,” he said.
Since late 2021, the department and Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi have faced litigation from the Helen Suzman Foundation challenging the lawfulness of Motsoaledi’s decision to terminate the ZEP.
The ZEP system was introduced in 2009 to regularise the status of Zimbabweans coming to South Africa for political or economic reasons. It allows permit holders to live, work and study in the country.
The permits were renewed twice, in 2014 and 2017. The latest renewal was set to expire on 31 December 2021.
In November 2021, the Cabinet announced that the ZEPs, which were due to expire the following month, would not be extended. Permit holders were given a 12-month grace period until the end of December 2022 to legalise their status in South Africa by other means. In September 2022, Motsoaledi announced that the grace period would be extended until 30 June 2023.
In June 2023, the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Pretoria ruled that Home Affairs’ decision to terminate the ZEP system — which would have profound consequences on the lives of more than 178,000 ZEP holders who had lived and worked in South Africa for well over a decade — was “unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid”.
Permit holders will now have another 12 months to remain in the country, without fear of reprisal or arrest, after the court ordered the department to conduct a proper public participation process as required by law.
Hlabane referred to Motsoaledi’s announcement last Friday that new permits will be issued to holders of the LEP and the ZEP which will be valid for two more years, until 29 November 2025.
“When we come to operationalising that one, it is at that point that everybody else who wishes to apply and who qualifies — that is the people on ZEP — will then apply for the permits,” he said.
Hlabane referred to a press statement that states that a holder of the exemption permit will be allowed freedom of movement between Zimbabwe and South Africa or any other country.
“They will be able to travel to Zimbabwe, even if the ZEP is expired, and they will still be able to come to South Africa, given this provision,” he said.
The court judgment also means that ZEP holders will legally be in South Africa until June 2024, Hlabane said.
“In the event that they choose to apply for the new one, it will take them beyond that period up to 29 November 2025,” he said.
Motsoaledi’s latest directive also states that:
- No holder of a valid exemption permit may be arrested, ordered to depart, or be detained for purposes of deportation or deported in terms of section 34 of the Immigration Act for any reason related to him or her not having any valid exemption certificate (ie, permit label/sticker) in his or her passport.
- The holder of a valid exemption permit may not be dealt with in terms of sections 29, 30, and 32 of the Immigration Act. 2. The holder of a valid exemption permit may be allowed to enter into or depart from the Republic of South Africa in terms of section 9 of the Act, read together with the Immigration Regulations, 2014, provided that he or she complies with all other requirements for entry into and departure from the Republic, save for the reason of having an expired exemption permit indicated in his or her passport
What next for parents in similar situations?
Hlabane advised the parents and others in a similar situation to go to their nearest Home Affairs office and apply for a letter of good cause — a document that provides a compelling and persuasive reason for the department to grant a specific request by an individual who is not a South African when their visa has expired.
This letter is often used in visa applications to explain extenuating circumstances and provide additional information that supports late visa applications.
“Once they have given them the letter, they should take the letter to VFS, which should then help them to do this renewal,” Hlabane said.
Families seek clarity on travel with Zimbabwean Exemption Permits after extension