The Pretoria High Court has begun hearing one of the most significant human rights cases in recent times, as four separate cases challenge South African Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s decision to terminate the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) system. The termination of ZEP would leave 178,000 permit holders and their families undocumented and struggling to obtain alternative permits that allow them to continue living and working in South Africa. The Helen Suzman Foundation, represented by Advocate Steven Budlender, argues that the minister’s decision is unlawful, unconstitutional, and invalid.
With the 30 June 2023 deadline approaching for ZEP holders to obtain alternative permits, the future of these permit holders hangs in the balance. Motsoaledi has encouraged them to apply for ‘mainstream’ visas, but few are likely to qualify according to the Department of Home Affairs Critical Skills List.
One of the reasons cited for the termination of the ZEP system is the claim that undocumented Zimbabweans contribute to South Africa’s unemployment rate. Among others, the Helen Suzman Foundation argues that 178,000 permit holders viewed against a population of over 60 million makes very little impact to employment figures.
Advocate Budlender argues that the minister’s decision to terminate the ZEP program without consulting ZEP holders or the public, is procedurally unfair and irrational. The minister’s decision was taken without considering the profound impact that it would have on the lives of ZEP holders, their children, and the broader public.
The Helen Suzman Foundation and other organisations argue that the termination of the ZEP system will force hundreds of thousands of people, including children who have grown up and attended school in South Africa, to uproot and relocate to Zimbabwe. These organisations maintain that proper public consultation was not undertaken before the decision to terminate the ZEP program was made. This effectively means that the decision represents a breach of the constitutional rights of ZEP holders and their children.
The Department of Home Affairs is, however, opposing the case. It argues that the relief sought by the Helen Suzman Foundation would grant rights of permanent residence to ZEP holders. This, Home Affairs asserts, contravenes the conditions under which those permits were granted. The department also asserts that there are more than a million undocumented Zimbabweans currently living in South Africa.
Various organisations are challenging the minister’s decision, including the ZEP Holders Association (Zepha), the Zimbabwe Immigration Federation, and the All Truck Drivers Forum and Allied South Africa (ATDFASA). These groups have varying demands—one of which is to set aside the decision to grant ZEP holders the right to permanent residence in South Africa.
The case continues as the Department of Home Affairs presents its arguments. As the future of 178,000 Zimbabwean nationals living in South Africa remains uncertain, the outcome of this case will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for the individuals and families affected.
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