ZIMBABWEANS who overstayed their temporary permits due to South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown have been banned for five years from re-entering, despite earlier promises of exemptions.
Among these are some Zimbabweans who made use of specially arranged buses over the weekend to return home. They were shocked when they were told by officials at the Beitbridge border post that they could not return to South Africa for five years.
This seems to be contrary to a special arrangement that was announced in March and published on April 14 on the Department of Home Affairs’ website.
One woman, who returned home on Saturday 16 May, was given a paper stating that the reason for her five-year ban is that she has “overstayed by 37 days, at a time”.
She was declared an “undesirable person”.
This is despite a statement by the government saying holders of visas “which expired from mid-February 2020” and who did not renew their visas before the lockdown, “will not be declared illegal or prohibited persons”.
The woman was among 200 Zimbabweans who made use of buses sponsored by South Africa-based Zimbabwean businessman Justice Maphosa to facilitate those who wanted to return to Zimbabwe but who were out of pocket.
She said when they got to the Beitbridge border post, those with expired papers got an unpleasant surprise.
“They said, those who have got a valid passport, make your own line. Those who have overstayed because of lockdown, make your own line. When the immigration stamped the passport, those who had the passport who expired during the lockdown, they were given the stamp for five years.”
She said she had been in South Africa to visit relatives and “got stuck” because of the lockdown. The woman is currently undergoing 21-day quarantine with a group of fellow travellers at the Masvingo Polytechnic, a government-owned college.
Asked whether she would have stayed in South Africa if she had known about this ban, she said: “Because of the situation down there [in South Africa], I think people will sacrifice and they will say they have no passports, and cross the border as border jumpers without passport,” she said.
Like many South Africans, Zimbabweans living in South Africa have been without an income for over a month now due to the lockdown, but many of them are not entitled to the relief measures announced by the South African government.
There is anecdotal evidence that, outside of the lockdown period, this kind of border jumping has been the standard procedure for Zimbabweans who have overstayed their permits in South Africa.
The woman said the same ban was issued to some of her compatriots who paid R600 each to return on chartered buses last week, and the week before there were similar reports in the local media when 141 Zimbabweans returned home.
There were also claims on social media of delays at the South African border of up to 16 hours, and of longer delays for vehicles transporting goods.
A Zanu-PF MP from the Beitbridge East constituency, Albert Nguluvhe, was quoted as saying these bans might have been an “overreaction” by South African immigration officials because some of those among the early returnees were shoppers caught up when the lockdown commenced.
An official government spokesperson was less sympathetic. Permanent Secretary in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Nick Mangwana, tweeted on May 10:
“Some are asking whether every Zimbabwean returning home from South Africa is having a five-year ban stamped in their passport.
“Only those who broke South African immigration laws such as overstaying are subject to some measures endorsed in their passports.”
Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the department would not penalise people who were in the country legally and whose permits expired during the lockdown period.
“Such people are allowed to leave without being barred from returning to the country,” he said. He was also in the process of making inquiries about what had happened in the case of the woman mentioned earlier. Qoza added that travellers can appeal the ban within 30 days, making use of the email address on the document they were given.
Zimbabwean leaders earlier said there are about 3,000 nationals in South Africa who indicated that they wanted to return. It is thought that there are over a million – and as many as three million – Zimbabweans in South Africa at any given time.
Two weeks ago the department sent home 570 Zimbabweans who were held at Lindela repatriation centre in Krugersdorp following a riot there.
South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told SABC that he summoned the Zimbabwean mission to take care of the deportation.