Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Johannesburg Wary of Making Visa Concessions

South Africa reluctant to relax travel restrictions with neighbour as it’s already struggling with huge influx of illegal Zimbabweans.
By Joseph Sithole

Efforts to ease the visa regime between Zimbabwe and its southern neighbour, South Africa, are proving problematic as this would open the floodgates for Zimbabweans escaping hunger and increasing repression from President Robert Mugabe’s government, say analysts.

A few weeks ago, three Zimbabwean committees on defence, state security and public security met their South African counterparts to work out how stringent visa requirements could be relaxed to promote trade and the freer movement of nationals between the two countries.

A Zimbabwean visiting South Africa legally needs a letter of invitation from an individual or organisation in that country, a visa, proof of ability to sustain oneself while in that country and a security deposit fee. South Africans travelling to Zimbabwe don’t even need a visa.

Zimbabwe’s chief immigration officer Clemence Masango, who was part of the delegation which went to South Africa, said it was unfair for South Africans to impose stringent travel requirements on Zimbabweans when South Africans were entering Zimbabwe without hassles.

“The South Africans said they have their own reasons why they cannot scrap visas now,” Masango told state media on his return. “We then asked for removal of some of the conditions they have imposed and in the meeting we agreed that some of the requirements be removed or reviewed.”

This week, however, the South African government announced new regulations scrapping border passes that had been used by Zimbabweans living within a 20 kilometre radius of the Beit Bridge border crossing for multiple trips between the two countries.

Analysts said the real issue around travel restrictions was growing xenophobia in South Africa, as more Zimbabweans seek to escape poverty back home. An estimated 3,000 Zimbabweans cross the border illegally into South Africa every month. About 300 are deported every week but still try to find their way back.

One political analyst said South Africa was wary of creating a false crisis of expectation by promising too much of what it could not deliver. He said the country was concerned about rising crime, largely blamed on foreigners, particularly Zimbabweans, and the effect this was likely to have on its hosting of the 2010 World Cup.

“South Africa may be our biggest trading partner in the Southern African Development Community, but there is a lot of nervousness about an ill-timed gesture of friendship ahead of the soccer World Cup in about three years’ time,” said the analyst. “Scrapping visa requirements at this time would be reckless, to say the least. South Africa is already inundated with Zimbabweans of all descriptions, from asylum seekers to illegal border jumpers and cross-border traders.”

There are an estimated three million Zimbabweans currently resident in South Africa. Other havens Zimbabweans have settled in are Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

The analyst said South African president Thabo Mbeki, mediating between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, was treading carefully on the visa issue. Mbeki would not want to open the border at a time of Zimbabwe’s deep economic crisis. That could lend credence to claims by Zimbabwean opposition movements of worsening political repression.

Last year, South Africa announced that Zimbabwean travellers to South Africa needed to pay a steep security deposit, bring travellers’ cheques valued at 2,000 rand (about 300 US dollars) and provide a letter of invitation and affidavits from the person or organisation hosting them.

Reluctance by South Africa to relax visa regulations could work against the regional integration envisaged to take place by 2015. Currently, efforts are being made to set up a free trade area in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, and the Common Market of Southern Africa, Comesa, region. South Africa is also part of the Southern African Customs Union, SACU, trade bloc which includes Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho.

Zimbabweans don’t require visas to travel to Botswana, while entry requirements to other, poorer neighbours are less stringent than South Africa’s.

The analyst said the recent killing of South Africa’s popular reggae artiste Lucky Dube by would-be hijackers, two of them Mozambican nationals, had fuelled xenophobia.

“South Africa is becoming too conscious of its status as the regional economic powerhouse,” said another analyst. “But this comes with risks, because it is also the centre of attraction for people from the region who think they can make their fortune in the famed city of gold, the commercial capital Johannesburg. Construction work going on across the country has become a huge magnet for labourers from the region and South Africa is very sensitive about a flood of refugees from Zimbabwe if it opens the gates.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.


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