So Near and Yet So Far: 90-day Zimbabwe Visa Waiver

asylum seekers
Wednesday, 5 August, 2009 - 10:16

Despite reports of an increase in the number of Zimbabweans entering and leaving South Africa legally because of the recent introduction of the 90-day visa waiver for Zimbabweans by the Department of Home Affairs in March, refugee service providers have observed that illegal entry into South Africa by Zimbabwean economic migrants has continued to escalate, with many Zimbabwean asylum seekers still opting to jump the border and apply for asylum once already in the country, rather than entering the legitimate way

The 90-day visa waiver is the result of a bilateral agreement concluded between home affairs departments in Zimbabwe and South Africa(1). In terms of this arrangement, Zimbabweans who wish to enter into South Africa are issued with a permit at the South African border post which allows them to remain in the country for 90 days. If they wish to work while in the country, they are required to inform an immigration officer, who will endorse the permit. After 90 days, there is the possibility of renewal for a further 90 days at a Home Affairs office at the cost of R425. Renewal is possible only once. Instead of renewing the permit, they have the option of leaving South Africa before the end of the 90 days, and re-entering the country later. Upon entry, they can be issued with a new 90 day permit. Zimbabweans are allowed to enter and leave South Africa as many times as they wish, receiving new visitors permits (2).

Similar practices are followed across Southern Africa and South Africa has been widely applauded in human rights circles for finally following the same process. This move is in line with the Draft SADC Protocol on the Movement of Persons which promotes the free movement of people within Southern Africa to achieve interdependence and integration of the region, with a view to building an African economic community in the future.

One of the goals of the Department of Home Affairs was, through the 90-day visa waiver, to ease the pressure on Refugee Reception offices which receive thousands of applications for asylum from Zimbabwean applicants. Many applications are from economic migrants and not refugees as defined by the Refugees Act (1998). In the words of the new Minister of Home Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma:

“International law obliges you to process an asylum seeker until they have exhausted all the avenues in South Africa… Our problem is the portion of people who say they are asylum seekers because this is the only way of legalising their stay.” (3)

The Department of Home Affairs also hoped to more effectively control movement between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and provide a disincentive for illegal entry into South Africa. However refugee service providers, including the Refugee Aid Organisation and Medicins Sans Frontiers, have observed that many Zimbabwean asylum seekers continue to circumvent the new system.

“In our research in Musina, a home affairs official we interviewed observed that as long as the 90 day permit has to be stamped into a passport or emergency travel document, legal entry into South Africa remains inaccessible to Zim asylum seekers because passports and emergency travel documents are expensive to acquire in Zimbabwe,” says Claudia Serra, Director of Refugee Aid Organisation.
She said that it is only recently that banks and employers began accepting and recognising asylum seeker permits, so people are hesitant to try and explain new documentation to them.

In the absence of a mass education campaign within the refugee community to clarify some of the misperceptions among some Zimbabwean asylum seekers about how the new system works, and clarification on what the differences between work permits and asylum seeker permits are, the 90-day permit will only achieve limited success.

A Durban-based Zimbabwean economic migrant said: “I will continue to use the asylum seeker permit because on the new permit I can only stay in the country for 90 days, and that is it for the year. Yet, I sell baskets, and would like to be able to get in and out of South Africa throughout the year”.

Serra says that of a group of 60 women she trained at the Methodist Church in Johannesburg in June this year, only one participant knew what an asylum seeker permit was. The rest were under the impression that it was a type of work permit.

The Department of Home Affairs has been silent on its promise to introduce a Special Dispensation permit for Zimbabweans, as announced on 3 April 2009 by Immigration Director General, Jackie McKay. The Special Dispensation Permit would not require applicants to have travel documents. This permit would most likely achieve government’s purpose of controlling movement between the two countries, and provide a viable alternative for the majority of Zimbabwean economic migrants who apply for refugee status in South Africa.


1. Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) Newsletter, No 14: 8 April 2009
2. Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) Newsletter, No 14: 8 April 2009
3. Minister Dlamini-Zuma, “Transcript of interaction by Minister of Home Affairs Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma with Pretoria Press Club, Pretoria” (Comments from the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs) [accessed 23 June 2009]

Samantha Mundeta is an Advocacy Officer at the Refugee Aid Organisation.

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