South Africa jettisoned a plan that would have forced about 200,000 Zimbabweans to return home, to the satisfaction of critics who said it would have caused a humanitarian crisis.
The Department of Home Affairs gave no reason for withdrawing its directive to end the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit on Monday.
The cabinet’s Nov. 25 decision to end the permits drew a chorus of complaints from human rights groups that threatened to mount a court challenge.
They argued that Zimbabweans who have been living in South Africa for more than a decade were going to be sent back to a country with few economic opportunities and high levels of political repression.
The exemption only applied to Zimbabweans who entered South Africa before the arrangement was enacted in 2009.
Sharon Ekambaram, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights in Johannesburg, welcomed the reversal. “It does call for a debate on how we manage movement in the region without infringing on peoples’ human rights and their dignity,” Ekambaram said.
The plan had been to end the permit on Dec. 31, and allow permit-holders to apply for different visas or be deported after 12 months. There are few other permits they can apply for.
Had the plan gone through, the Zimbabwean permit-holders’ lives would have been disrupted, with children denied the opportunity to register for school, employers refusing to renew work contracts, and banks denying services or withholding access to accounts, Ekambaram said previously in a letter signed by 46 organizations.
South Africa has a population of about 60 million, including about 3 million migrants, according to government statistics. Many are Zimbabweans driven south by two decades of politically linked violence and economic collapse. The majority are undocumented and do not hold the permit.
The cabinet voted to end the exemption program after the ruling African National Congress suffered its worst ever electoral performance in municipal and national elections. ActionSA, an anti-immigrant party formed by former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, won 16% of the votes in the city in its first race and a large proportion of the ballots in the capital, Pretoria.
South Africa has been plagued by recurrent bouts of xenophobic violence since at least 2008, with foreigners often accused of taking jobs in a country where a third of the workforce is unemployed.