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South Africa's Zimbabwe Exemption Permit Extended

FILE - A man and a woman cross the road on July 28, 2018 at the Beitbridge border post, near Musina, used by many Zimbabweans as a way to get back into Zimbabwe from South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's Department of Home Affairs has announced another six-month extension to the June 30 deadline for Zimbabwe Exemption Permit holders, a welcomed relief for close to 200,000 Zimbabweans living in the southern African nation.

South African Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi said the extension had been given for Zimbabweans to apply for other visas and waivers, ordering that current ZEP holders not be arrested or deported due to expired permits.

This extension marks the third time a grace period has been given by the South African government.

The government had earlier said people holding Zimbabwe Exemption Permits would have to leave the country by the end of this month - unless they convert their current permit to other visas or waivers.

Some Zimbabweans have expressed their unwillingness to leave after residing in South Africa for over a decade, during which they have acquired assets and established professions and families.

Ngqabutho Mabhena, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa, told VOA the organization welcomes the extension.

"It became clear to us that they were not going to be able to meet their own deadline because many people have been applying, and it has been difficult on the part of the Verification Visa Centre to accommodate everyone," Mabhena said.

However, Freeman Bhengu, who recently led a march against the presence of illegal foreign nationals in the country, said they are disappointed by the extension.

"This is going to impact negatively on our South Africans who are unemployed because of these ZEPs," Bhengu said, "we have got such a high unemployment rate in South Africa that we need all avenues possible for us to employ our people," he added.

There has been growing anti-foreigner sentiment in the country, driven in part by a fragile economy with an unemployment rate topping 30%.

ZEP holders had filed a court case challenging their expulsion. Legal expert Vusumuzi Sibanda says the pending court ruling on the case will likely not change the decision to extend.

"If the court says people should go, that will not change anything because currently there is an extension that goes up to 31 December."

Sibanda said if the court rules the permit holders can stay beyond that, “then it means that court decision is what is going to be bound by."