South Africa has thrown a lifeline to Basotho who had been living and operating businesses illegally in that country. Between 11 December 2015 and 31 December 2016, Lesotho nationals without the required immigration papers would not be deported from South Africa but are expected to regularize their stay during this period. South Africa has also announced that beginning 1 February 2016, eligible Basotho could apply for a Lesotho Special Permit. The permit would be valid from 1 May 2016 to 30 April 2020 and seeks to regularise the stay of Lesotho nationals currently residing illegally in South Africa, according to a statement issued by Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba.
“In the long run, this massive project will advance the goals of the National Development Plan, precisely because Lesotho nationals with special permits will work lawfully, pay taxes, and contribute to the country’s economic development and growth, as well as that of their country. We trust that the project will promote greater cooperation on managing migration challenges between the two countries. Basotho in the country will enjoy protection from unlawful labour practices, fraud and corruption,” Mr Gigaba further announced.
This week, Home Affairs Minister Lekhetho Rakuoane spoke further on the permits which have been widely hailed by Basotho as they allow them to be in South Africa without undue harassment from unscrupulous officials.
The Ministry of Home Affairs National Identity and Civil Registration (NICR) Director, Tumelo Raboletse, speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about the permits and the challenges they present both Lesotho and South Africa.
LT: Lesotho Special Permits approved by South Africa last months have become a major talking point among Basotho and this was to be expected considering Lesotho’s geographical location in relation to South Africa, which completely surrounds the Kingdom. Could you please tell us more about the permits from a Lesotho perspective?
Raboletse: Minister Rakuoane clarified the agreement that the two governments reached with respect to Basotho who overstayed and worked illegally in South Africa. Some of our people are in South Africa undocumented, which means without the relevant immigration papers, while others have fraudulently acquired South African identity documents. So the minister was clarifying the contents of the agreement which followed discussions he had with his South African counterpart. The dispensation, as you should be aware, was approved by the South African cabinet in October this year.
LT: But what does the agreement really say?
Raboletse: First, it saw South Africa announce a moratorium or suspension of deportations and detention of Lesotho nationals who resided or worked in South Africa illegally. However, the moratorium excludes people who have negative police clearance that is people who have criminal records other than immigration-related offences. Secondly, that amnesty has been granted to all Basotho who acquired South African documents fraudulently. These people can now apply regularize their stay in South Africa through these special permits so that they can work, study or do business in South Africa. You will remember that Basotho categorized as ‘low-skilled labour’ could not be issued work permits in South Africa. South Africa only required highly skilled foreigners in their country. But in light of the many Basotho who work at South African farms, construction companies and as drivers, for example, South Africa has agreed to accommodate them through the four-year Lesotho Dispensation Permits.
LT: What do you need to qualify for these permits?
Raboletse: The first requirement is that one should be holding a Lesotho national identity card. Secondly, one should be holding a valid Lesotho passport. It is critical for people to understand this does not necessarily mean that you should be holding the e-passport (electronic). Even people with the old machine-readable passports which are still valid, but are not registered under the new electronic system, all they need to do is come and apply for birth certificates and national IDs and then they can go to South Africa using their old travel documents. Thirdly, they should also be having negative police clearance from Lesotho. And fourthly, they should have a letter confirming that indeed, they are employed in South Africa.
LT: What has happened to Basotho who were already detained in South Africa for immigration-related crimes?
Raboletse: Prior to Honourable Gigaba’s announcement of the special permits, the two countries made arrangements for the release of those detained Basotho. The last group of the detainees was released early November. I was directed to go to South Africa and make sure that no Mosotho remained in Lindela (detention facility in Gauteng). I remember very well that Minister Rakuoane had even engaged our private sector to mobilise its support in in the form of vehicles to transport those Basotho back into the country. So basically, the ministry made sure all Basotho detained on immigration-related charges in South Africa, were released. As we speak, and as far as we are aware, there is no Mosotho in Lindela held on immigration-related offences. However, there are reports we are receiving, and we are following those leads, that the police continue to arrest Basotho for overstaying their visits to South Africa, despite this this announcement. I think what is critical to note here is that Minister Gigaba announced the Lesotho Dispensation Permit consistent with the South African Immigration Act No 13 of 2002. To be specific, Section 31(2)(b) of the Act gives the minister power to grant a category of foreigners permanent residency for a specified or unspecified period when special circumstances exist. Mr Gigaba used this very same legal instrument to grant Basotho the moratorium.
LT: But why would the police not comply with this directive?
Raboletse: One of the positive responses that we are getting is that where the police have arrested these people and take them to court, the courts are saying to the police ‘if you are prosecuting these individuals in terms of this law, the minister has now announced that these people have been pardoned’. I also had a meeting with officials at the Maseru border, including the police, where now South African immigration officials also indicated they were aware the police were arresting our people when they knew they were not supposed to do so. The information we are receiving is that soon after the announcement by the minister, the message was sent across the country. But in South Africa, they have what they call provincial joint-meetings where all heads of departments meet. We understand in one of those meetings, the issue was discussed and clarified. This matter was even discussed at a much lower level at the borders. I had the privilege to attend one such meeting yesterday (Monday) in Maseru where this issue was clarified. But what I observed was it was now becoming the norm for officials at the border at this time of the year to collect something from Basotho who would have overstayed their visit in South Africa. I think, and this is a personal view and I may be wrong, this is proving a challenge for them to now come to terms with the directive of the minister which he did consistent with the law. But despite this announcement, Basotho continue to be harassed in South Africa. People are actually being asked to pay for overstaying in South Africa, either by the police or once they arrive at the border. And when as you make a follow up, you find that the people pay because they would have been threatened with arrest. People pay because they fear detention and just want to be home with their loved ones. They leave something for the police or immigration officials just to allow them to go. That is a challenge we are trying to deal with. I hope to keep engaging our counterparts in South Africa in order to find a solution. Perhaps if we have a joint outreach to communicate and make people understand this issue so that even the police begin to understand this special dispensation for Basotho.
LT: Back to the four-year permits; how much will they cost Basotho?
Raboletse: That has not been finalised as yet, but we have discussed the issue. We asked that very same question but could not get a definite answer. However, what we noted was the Department of Home Affairs has outsourced that function to a private company. And this very same company was overseeing similar special permits for Zimbabweans. The company was charging R870 each and the permits lasted three years. Our understanding is that if there will be a fee for Basotho, it will not be more than R870 for four years. We are hoping an announcement will be made soon on the issue.
LT: It is that time of the year when there is congestion at the borders because of the many Basotho coming home for the festive season. Is the ministry ready for the influx?
Raboletse: As we speak, the principal secretary (Home Affairs) is having a meeting with the police commissioner and I know the respective ministers are also having this discussion. I think the country is ready to absorb the number of people that will be coming home for Christmas. The minister directed departments of immigration, passports and National Identity and Civil Registry to review our strategy in terms of operating hours because of the expected higher volume of traffic at the borders. After that directive, we have expanded our working hours.