Several Zimbabwean and Lesotho lecturers on exemption permits that allow them to live and work in SA, have been told their services are no longer required by the Department of Higher Education (DHE).
They head to court this week to have their dismissals set aside as unlawful.
The Zimbabwe Exemption Permit Holders Association (Zepha) says this is the latest salvo in a campaign to rid South Africa of Zimbabweans, even though most of them have been living and working in SA for more than a decade.
The Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) system was introduced more than a decade ago to regularise the status of Zimbabweans who were illegally in SA due to political and economic hardships at home.
The Department of Home Affairs last year announced that the ZEP system would be terminated in June 2023, by which time ZEP holders would have to apply for ‘regular’ SA visas.
Zepha argues that Home Affairs’ critical skills list, which determines the categories of skills needed by applicants to apply for regular visas, is designed to exclude the majority of ZEP holders, most of whom are in artisan and lower-skilled trades.
The department’s decision to end the ZEP system is being challenged in three separate court cases, all of them claiming this will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe that will encompass the entire region.
This comes just weeks after Zepha approached the Pretoria High Court, claiming that the children of ZEP holders who had grown up in SA were being denied registration at schools. In that case, the respondents were the ministers and departments of basic education and home affairs. The government backed down in March, and the court ordered that children of ZEP holders be given 10 days to register for school.
Now lecturers with ZEP permits at higher education institution in SA are being “let go” by the Department of Higher Education, according to Zepha.
In one letter of dismissal seen by Moneyweb, a senior lecturer and ZEP holder is simply told that his contract expires on 31 March. No reason is given.
Zepha says it is however clearly because the lecturer is in SA on a ZEP permit.
“I can confirm that Zepha just instructed our legal team to approach the high court to review and set aside the decision by the Department of Higher Education to let go several ZEP holders who were employed as lecturers at various academic institutions in South Africa,” says Advocate Simba Chitando, legal representative for Zepha.
“Targeting ZEP holders for dismissal from employment at higher education institutions is obviously unlawful,” he adds.
“The minister of higher education does not know, or appreciate, the fact that this will cause serious harm to the quality and efficiency of higher education in South Africa and considering the role South African higher education institutions play in the region, it will hurt the continent. It is a decision that ought to be reviewed [and] set aside by our courts.”
Lesotho nationals being ‘targeted’
What is equally disturbing, says Chitando, is the fact that Lesotho citizens are now in the crosshairs of the Department of Home Affairs.
Several Lesotho nationals living and working in SA under the so-called Lesotho Exemption Permit, which is similar to the ZEP system, have likewise been told by the Department of Higher Education that their services are no longer required.
“This suggests that the South African government has turned its back on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, and without the intervention of the courts, there is a real danger that South Africa would be completely isolated from the region, and that a solid case can be made by the citizens of Southern Africa to ask its leaders to cause the removal of South Africa from SADC,” adds Chitando.
The three organisations challenging the decision by the Department of Home Affairs to end the ZEP system are Zepha, the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Zimbabwe Immigration Federation.
All three argue in their court papers that the termination of the ZEP system would result in hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans being deported or having to leave voluntarily, with little or no prospect of being reabsorbed into the Zimbabwean economy.
Chitando says Zimbabweans face growing xenophobia in SA, orchestrated by the government.
There are reports of Zimbabweans working in SA being charged as foreigners at hospitals, and Zepha previously took the Department of Home Affairs to court to overturn a directive that threatened to lock ZEP holders’ bank accounts in SA. On that occasion, Zepha succeeded in having the directive withdrawn.