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In September 2010, the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) launched a programme the “Zimbabwean Dispensation Project” (ZDP) that would allow undocumented Zimbabweans living in South Africa the chance to apply for 4-year work, study or business permits. Because passports were needed to process permit applications, Zimbabweans were also allowed to apply for passports. In only three months, the DHA received 275,762 applications. While the application process was relatively successful in the offices that PASSOP monitored, the dispensation of said permits and passports was not.
Originally the permits and passports were meant only to be collected in Johannesburg. After charging R750 (about $110 USD) for the application, a journey to Johannesburg would have been financially impossible for many of the applicants. PASSOP and other groups lobbied the DHA and persuaded them to deliver the passports to Cape Town. They would only be delivered on three days: 28, 29, 30 April (Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
On Friday, I was asked to help monitor the dispensation of passports. When I got to Bellville, I could see hundreds of people everywhere. The Zimbabwean Consulate representatives were hidden within the confines of the DHA office and people were haphazardly gathered around the gates of the office, waiting to hear their names called. The Consulate representatives were calling out names in alphabetical order, or so I heard from the people I talked to (I never actually heard any name calling myself), but moving at an absurdly slow pace. As of 2:30pm on the second day, they had only made it through the alphabet once and were on ‘M’.
It seemed to be the most inefficient system, as hundreds of people waited patiently in confusion over whether they had missed their name or whether they would go through the names one more time. I spoke with one man who had been told via text to come collect his passport between 29-30 April, but his name had been called on the 28th so he had no idea whether it was worth it to wait until Saturday. I noticed right away that a group of women with their babies strapped to their backs standing across the street under some trees. When I asked why they were standing part from the men, they replied that they were seeking shelter from the rain and were protecting their babies from any harm that might occur where the men were standing. Many of them had been standing, with their babies on their backs for hours on end, with no chairs or benches in sight. Even worse, they had no way of knowing what names were being called. Although most of the women had brothers or husbands with them, several had come alone and relied on hearsay about what names they were calling.
Many people approached my colleagues and myself to ask for letters confirming that they were waiting for the passports, as many of their jobs depended on it. I met another man from Swellendorp (about 2 hours away via car) who had spent the night in the parking lot and was debating spending a second night to wait for his name to be called on Saturday. He informed me, however, that he would surely be fired for being gone so long and, with his phone battery already flat, he had no way of calling his boss, or even his family.
Rumours of bribery and corruption were rampant as several people told me that they had been helped sooner because they had paid off a representative. Sadly, I also heard people say they had paid someone to get their passport only to find that they had been cheated. Others told me they had seen other people sneak into the office to get their passports before their names had been called. There was mass confusion as to what would happen with the leftover passports. Would the representatives take them back to the Johannesburg office? Would they come back after the weekend? Would they leave the passports at the DHA office here?
Even worse, there was a man named Normal Kujinga, who, after being told to move further back in the line, got in an argument with security guards. He was beaten with a stick and was handcuffed to a pole for four hours after waiting in line to secure his childrens’ passports for three days.
I was appalled at the inefficiency of the representatives and of the DHA. There was no loud speaker to address the crowd to explain the process. There was no loud speaker to call out names and there was no one to answer questions or address concerns of the Zimbabweans. The rate to which they were helping people was unacceptably slow. It was so sad to see that even in South Africa, these Zimbabweans had to deal with Zimbabwe’s incompetence.
After three days of dispensing passports, only a fraction of the passports destined for Cape Town were delivered. The rest were sent to Johannesburg. I wonder how many of them lost their jobs, and how many of the R750 passports will ever be claimed.
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For the last few months, I have been interning with a local organization called PASSOP (People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty). Founded a few years ago by Braam Hanekom, PASSOP serves as a grassroots NGO dedicated to protecting and lobbying for the rights of foreigners in South Africa. In my time at PASSOP, I’ve learned so much not only about the crises in Zimbabwe and other neighbouring countries, about the struggles foreigners in South Africa face, but also about how civil society works with and against the government here in South Africa.
In April, I helped write a proposal for a education project similar to what I did for Amnesty International, whereby PASSOP staff members would be teaching local high school students about cultural identity, cultural diversity, and xenophobia. The goal of this project is to foster understanding and tolerance in youth to prevent a future breakout of xenophobic violence here in South Africa. Given the political and economic situation in many African countries (specifically: Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Somalia, Angola and Malawi), South Africa has become the point of refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. For South Africans struggling to find jobs and provide for themselves and their families, foreigners who hold jobs are often held in contempt. And so the process goes—stereotypes form, prejudices grow and xenophobia builds and violence occurs.
The most recent example of xenophobic violence was in May of 2008. It began with several riots in a township near Johannesburg which spread across South Africa, leaving 62 dead, several hundred injured and forced many foreigners to return to their home countries.
PASSOP also has two help desks, one in Imizamo Yethu, a township in Hout Bay and one in Masiphumelele, a township in Fish Hoek. These help desks offer paralegal advice to both foreigners and South Africans who have labour or documentation concerns offer a free CVs (resumes) writing service for those seeking jobs. Many of these people have limited access to computers and printers, so creating a CV is difficult. I’ve spent my fair share of time writing up CVs and although it can be tedious, it’s rewarding knowing how much having a CV can help someone find a job. We also give out questionnaires to both foreigners and South Africans to gauge xenophobic sentiments in the townships.
I have met some truly incredible people and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had working at PASSOP. This experience so far has definitely added a new perspective to my understanding of human rights and social justice and continues to remind me of why I am so passionate about this issue.