Ahead of the expiry of the permits in November, the Zimbabweans are challenging the government position that the permits do not entitle the holder to apply for permanent residence in South Africa.
Under South Africa's immigration law, foreigners can apply for South African citizenship through naturalisation if they have held a permanent residence permit for at least five years.
In April 2009, South Africa's cabinet approved what was known as the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) in a bid to document Zimbabweans living and working illegally in Africa's most industrialised nation.
Some 295,000 Zimbabweans applied for the five-year permits and just over 245,000 were issued, allowing permit holders to work, conduct business and study in South Africa.
Those permits started expiring in December 2014, prompting the government to introduce a new permit scheme called the Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permits (ZSPs), which were valid for three years.
Nearly 198,000 ZSPs were issued, according to the Department of Home Affairs. When the ZSPs expired in 2017 they were replaced by Zimbabwean Exemption Permits, or ZEPs.Advocate Simba Chitando, a lawyer for the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit Holders Association said: "The problem faced by many hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans in South Africa is that they have been here for 10 years or longer under a variety of different permits, and it is generally conceded that they make a huge contribution to the South African economy, yet these permits do not allow them to enjoy the benefits that come with permanent residence, such as full access to banking facilities, or the right to accumulate pension savings.
"We argue that it is past time to grant permanent residence to those Zimbabweans who have been living and working in South Africa in a kind of no-man's land. We believe it is reasonable to expect to be granted permanent residence when the ZEPs expire, which they do in November 2021."
In a landmark case now before the Gauteng High Court, the Zimbabweans are asking the court to direct the minister of home affairs to issue them with South African ID documents on the grounds that they are permanent residents of South Africa in terms of the Immigration Act read together with the Identification Act.
They are also asking the court to review and set aside the decision by the department of home affairs not to renew residency permits "knowing that the holders of the permit have known no other home besides South Africa for more than 10 years".
This decision was unconscionable, irrational, unreasonable and unconstitutional, according to the court papers.
Zimbabwean Exemption Permit holders have a constitutional right to an equal path to citizenship in South Africa, and that right is being withheld, the association says.
"It is further submitted that the holders of Zimbabwean Exemption Permits have a legitimate expectation for the renewal of their current permit, and for permanent residence, without any further conditions, and the right to apply for citizenship in the Republic of South Africa," the Zimbabweans say.
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