While this provides ZEP holders an additional six months to apply for a mainstream visa, as the Minister reemphasized in his announcement, many remain wary as they may still face several speedbumps on their journey to eventually obtaining South African residency.
Extension creates breathing room
The looming deadline of 30 June 2023 placed extensive pressure on both the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the limited VFS offices assisting ZEP holders. Both saw an uptick in mainstream visa and other special applications, with the latter now facing between 1,000 and 1,500 applications daily. This wave was felt across the board, with Xpatweb having also seen an increase in the number of families and businesses seeking to change ZEP statuses to mainstream visa categories.
While this shows that Zimbabwean nationals have heeded the call from the Minister to apply for alternative visas, such as General Work Visas and Critical Skills Visas, the slow processing times have left many concerned.
The six-month extension, along with the deployment of more officials to assist in processing applications, allows for the DHA and VFS to better work through these applications. Additionally, it offers a greater timeframe for Zimbabwean nationals to pursue a different visa option on their route to South African residency, should they be eligible to do so. However, this road may not be clear just yet.
The ongoing court cases by the Zimbabwean Immigration Federation and the Helen Suzman Foundation, together with the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, against the Minister continue to cause concern for many ZEP holders. The reality is, regardless of whether the court cases are won or lost, the losing party will most likely appeal the outcome.
While an appeal may leave some Zimbabwean nationals in limbo, those who are applying for mainstream visas may very well have created a long-term sense of certainty for themselves.
Unfortunately, one hurdle that is not easily overcome is the backlog within the DHA. The department has faced a seemingly ever-worsening backlog since 2016, and by 2023, it reached nearly 63,000 pending applications, slowing down the processing times of applications for ZEP holders.
While the Minister announced that more resources have been deployed to assist in both the backlog and ZEP special applications, there seems to be no end in sight for these backlog woes.
VFS capacity and application costs
Solutions to a few hurdles have unfortunately not been considered in conjunction with the extension, such as capacity within VFS centres and the costs of the mainstream visa application process.
As it stands there are little to no VFS booking slots available and it appears that there are too many bookings for available slots which the VFS centres cannot accommodate. While this continues to show the eagerness of ZEP holders to apply for and obtain their special applications and visas, the extension may not be enough to curtail limited availability within VFS.
Further, there remain unplanned costs throughout the various stages of ZEP holders seeking to change their status. These unforeseen costs often place the process out of reach for many.
Are six months sufficient?
The six-month extension on the validity of ZEP permits remains a welcomed decision, as it allows ZEP holders more time to receive an outcome on any pending applications and it grants many the ability to begin the special application or mainstream visa process, despite the few roadblocks that remain.
Now is the opportune time for businesses with and families of ZEP holders to apply for a qualifying Mainstream visa or special application and to ensure they have a well-planned roadmap. A good roadmap ensures first-time accurate applications and avoids delays and/or rejections.