December 19, 2001

10,000 Zimbabwean labourers have to leave South African farms

Some 10,000 Zimbabwean labourers who worked illegally in South Africa's Northern Province have quit the region, and the government has made plans to accommodate the remaining 5,000 for a year, a senior official said December 19. "There is a very serious reduction in their numbers. The farmers (who employ them) are now asking for permission for only 5,000 to stay on," said Billy Masetlha, director general of the home affairs department. He said the government has agreed to grant permits for these workers for between three months and a year as their help was of "critical" importance to about 209 farms in the Limpopo valley, in northeastern South Africa, on the border with Zimbabwe. "Five thousand is all that is allowed to stay. Their permits will be renewed for three to 12 months, and then they will all be phased out by the department of labour," he said.

The presence of the foreign farm labourers, some of whom have been in the country for 15 years, has been a bone of contention for months between the farmers and the department, and between the South African and Zimbabwean governments. The labourers' work permits expired in October, and farmers then unsuccessfully applied for a court order to prevent their expulsion. They claimed the Zimbabweans had become indispensable and that repatriation would leave them in want of a work force to harvest crops, mainly perishable fruit and vegetables. The home affairs department in turn accused the farmers of reneging on a deal made a year ago to have all Zimbabwean workers leave, adding that foreigners were taking jobs from locals in the province where the unemployment rate reached 34 percent. Masetlha said Wednesday that the Zimbabwean government was happy with the new arrangement, as were the farmers, who held a party for government officials on Tuesday evening to celebrate the reprieve for the 5,000 workers. He said it was understandable that farmers had looked north of the Limpopo for labour, as for some "the nearest settlement was some five kilometres away in Zimbabwe and here it is 70 kilometres (45 miles) away." Zimbabweans who married South Africans during their stay will be allowed to apply for permanent residency and remain in the country. (THE NAMIBIAN)

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