A Zimbabwean man, Tonderai [not his real name], his wife and three children may soon have to leave South Africa, where they have been living for more than 11 years. The Department of Home Affairs has given him 30 days to appeal against its decision.

Tonderai left Zimbabwe when he was 23. He applied for asylum in South Africa in 2006 and was granted refugee status in 2008, initially for four years.

Tonderai had been active in organising student protests at Midlands State University in Gweru, where he was studying management and information systems. He says the Zimbabwean government believes that all student protests are linked to the opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and he fled, fearing for his safety.

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Tonderai renewed his refugee status in 2012 and was given another year, then again in 2013, when he was given another four years. Then, on 12 September 2017, he went to renew his refugee status. To his shock, he was rejected.

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs says that Tonderai travelled to Zimbabwe in 2009, 2010 and 2011. As a result, he invalidated his refugee status. “You re-availed yourself of the protection of the Zimbabwean government by travelling to your country using your [Zimbabwean] passport,” the department says in a letter to Tonderai.

A renewed asylum document sent to Home Affairs for confirmation. Archive photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

But Tonderai says his passport was stolen and he has never returned to Zimbabwe. He says that even when one of his children died in 2008 he did not return home as is the custom, but buried his son at Rusthof Cemetery in Strand. “We stayed here with no family to console us during that difficult time, to avoid breaching our refugee status conditions,” he says.

He says he has an affidavit from his former employer stating that he did not take leave and he has bank statements showing that he never left the country.

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“I will be arrested the moment I set foot in Harare. The ruling party is campaigning for the upcoming 2018 elections and intimidating protesters. This week, protesters and Daily News reporters were beaten,” he says.

Asylum seekers worried

Another Zimbabwean with refugee status is a former MDC chairperson from Zaka West in Masvingo Province, an MDC stronghold. She says that in 2002 ZANU-PF youth beat her and burnt down her house. She fled the country.

She is worried about her refugee status. When she last renewed her papers, she was given only a six-month extension. She has to return to Home Affairs on 22 November 2017.

“The Home Affairs official did not even read my file. He just said there were no political problems in Zimbabwe.”

“When I renewed my status, the Home Affairs official did not even read my file. He just gave me six months and mentioned that there were no political problems in Zimbabwe,” she says.

“I am worried that my refugee status might be rejected. There is no peace in Zimbabwe. If I go back, I will be killed,” she says.

Another Zimbabwean who spoke to GroundUp news agency said that after 10 years in South Africa she was rejected in September. She has appealed against the decision. She says, “My parents and siblings fled the country when our home was burned down. They are refugees in the United Kingdom.”

David Hlabane, a spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, said that all applications for refugee status were reviewed on a regular basis, including those of Zimbabweans. The review was based on whether the reason for granting refugee status still existed or whether the applicant had re-availed himself or herself of the protection of his or her country of origin.

“When refugee status is granted, it is not indefinite. The status is reviewed periodically, based on the current situation in the person’s country of origin. This is done in all cases and not only for Zimbabweans,” said Hlabane.

According to Aleck Kuhudzai of the Refugee Legal and Advocacy Centre, when refugee status is withdrawn the person has 30 days to leave. However, they can prepare a review application and submit it to the High Court.

Tendai Bhiza of People Against Suffering and Oppression (PASSOP) says they currently have 15 active rejection and review cases on their database.