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Zimbabweans scramble for South African visas

By Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
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Deadline for Zimbabweans in South Africa
  • Zimbabwean immigrants must apply for visas by December 31 deadline
  • Zimbabweans have enjoyed amnesty from deportation since April 2009
  • Many fled country because of lack of jobs, deteriorating economy at home
  • More than 100,000 visa applications already received; many more expected
  • Zimbabwe
  • South Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN -- Zimbabwean immigrants living in South Africa have just a few days left to apply for visas that would allow them to stay in the country legally.

"Let there be no illusion, the government will not extend the deadline for the registration of illegal Zimbabweans living in South Africa," said South Africa's Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

"Every resource has been placed at the disposal of illegal Zimbabweans living in South Africa to afford them the opportunity to regularize themselves."

She urged immigrants who have not yet done so to apply as soon as possible and not wait for the December 31 deadline.

"Accordingly, and even at this late hour, we take this opportunity to make the final appeal to those who have not applied for their regularisation or those with fraudulently acquired South African documents to apply or submit such documents now and not wait for the deadline," the minister said.

Zimbabwean immigrants have been seen recently lining up outside the home affairs offices across South Africa. Many have slept on the pavement waiting to legalize their status in South Africa.

"It is very difficult to get a job. So it's easy for us here to get a work permit so that we can also support our families back home," said a Zimbabwean immigrant, who asked to be identified by his first name, Lovejoy, as he waited outside the Johannesburg office.

Since April 2009, Zimbabweans living in South Africa illegally have had amnesty from deportation. But next year, authorities have said immigrants without visas will be deported.

The threat of being forced back to their struggling country has sparked widespread fear.

Once a regional bread basket, Zimbabwe's economy has rapidly deteriorated over the past decade. A unity government formed by President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February of last year has been tasked with rebuilding the country, but progress has been slow.

Work hours have been extended and staff in South Africa increased to deal with the more than 100,000 visa applications already received. Many more will likely be filed in the coming days.

Deportations are not expected to start until all the applications have been processed, according to the home affairs minister, though it was not immediately clear how long that process would take.

'We are working and doing our best to sort out their issue," said Dlamini Zuma.