The Burdensome Neighbor: South Africa and the Zimbabwe Dilemma

By Andrew Miller
Cornell International Affairs Review
2010, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

In addition, granting Section 22 status will facilitate more adequate living conditions for the asylum seekers. The UNHCR has labeled the South Africa's response to the migrant influx as having "significant protection gaps". The High Commissioner cites transit shelters in Musina, for instance, as being "extremely basic" and "inadequate".22 Given the strains already placed on the South African government for public service delivery to its own citizens, it may not be able to provide significantly improved conditions. With temporary asylum status, however, the migrants can find short-term employment to support themselves, thereby relying less on South Africa's public safety net.

This policy will likely draw discontent from the domestic workforce, but the administration should emphasize that this status is only temporary and will not take away permanent job opportunities from South African citizens. Finally, the government has a legally binding obligation to grant temporary asylum status to Zimbabwean migrants based on the South African Refugee Act; the UN's 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees; and the Organizations of African Unity's (OAU) 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.23 The Refugee Act defines a refugee as a person who is fleeing due to events that "seriously disturb or disrupt public disorder," and similar language is imbedded in the UN and OAU conventions.24 Given the upheaval caused by President Mugabe's political and economic mismanagement, the vast majority—if not all—of the Zimbabweans in South Africa meet this criterion.

Due to the inability of the South Africa's Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to process the high volume of individual asylum applications, I recommend the implementation of Section 35 of the Refugee Act. This mechanism allows the Home Minister to provide an entire group of asylum seekers resulting from a "mass influx" with temporary Section 22 status. Thus far with the individualized recognition procedure, the DHA has only granted temporary asylum to 10% of Zimbabwean migrants and has a backlog of 250,000 applications.25 By implementing Section 35, the migrants could be given Section 22 status en masse until economic and political conditions in their home country warrant repatriation.

Alternative Proposals

This section will present two alternate proposals that exist on opposing ends of the political spectrum. Within the Zuma administration, there are likely a number of government officials who propose full support for President Mugabe. Their policy to address the Zimbabwe dilemma would likely include the following key tenets: publically endorse President Mugabe; lobby the international community for funding of a broad-based assistance package controlled by the GoZ; and return the migrants to Zimbabwe.

This policy framework, however, would alienate Mr. Tsvingirai and lead to a collapse of the negotiations to reestablish the GNU. With power squarely in President Mugabe's hands, he would potentially accelerate the farm takeovers and other hazardous activities reversing the recent political and economic gains made by the GNU. Moreover, encouraging GoZ control of aid flows would likely lead to waste, fraud, and abuse due to ZANU-PF's corrupt culture. Deportation would remove the migrants at an extremely high cost to the South Africa's image abroad and would be illegal under international treaties and South African common law.

Conversely, some administration officials may seek to put the full weight of South Africa's diplomatic efforts behind Mr. Tsvangirai, which could prove equally problematic. Their proposal might look as follows: publically endorse Mr. Tsvangirai; lobby the international community for funding of "humanitarian plus" assistance controlled by the MDC; and grant permanent refugee status to undocumented migrants.

This policy framework would further isolate President Mugabe leading him to use his influence with the military and police forces to further entrench himself. A fierce political battle would likely erupt given that the MDC or possibly even elements within ZANU-PF might attempt a coup. The "humanitarian plus" package coupled with this political digression would not create the necessary conditions for the return of the migrants. And, as discussed above, granting permanent refugee status to the undocumented migrants could lead to domestic instability given that the South Africa does not have adequate public services or employment opportunities to fully absorb the two million person strong community.


While the proposals that fully back either President Mugabe or Mr. Tsvingirai will satisfy their respective constituencies in the South African government, a more moderated approach is needed to successfully resolve the Zimbabwe dilemma. As presented in this essay, the Zuma administration should pressure President Mugabe to abide by the GNU agreement, lobby the international community to fund aid organizations in distributing the "humanitarian plus" assistance package, and grant undocumented Zimbabwean migrants temporary asylum status. This policy framework addresses the urgency to protect the Zimbabwean migrants and to create the circumstances facilitating their eventual repatriation home. The story of Zimbabwe is truly a tragic one, but South Africa has the leverage to resolve the dilemma. The question remains, however, does the Zuma administration have the political will to use it?


  1. Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), “Protecting Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants in South Africa,” CoRMSA: Johannesburg,,%20 Asylum%20Seekers%20and%20Immigrants%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf (accessed February 6, 2010).
  2. Celia W. Dugger, “Rising Anger at Other Africans Fuels South Africa Attacks,” The New York Times: New York, world/africa/21safrica.html?_r=1 (accessed February 9, 2010).
  3. International Crisis Group (ICG), “Conflict History: Zimbabwe,” ICG: Washington, D.C., (accessed February 6, 2010)
  4. Nick Wadhams, “Special Report Zimbabwe: UN Slams Zim Government,”, (accessed February 8, 2010).
  5. ICG, “Conflict History.”
  6. Ibid
  7. Alexander Betts and Esra Kaytaz, “National and international responses to the Zimbabwean exodus: implications for the refugee protection regime,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): Geneva, h (accessed February 8, 2010).
  8. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Monthly Humanitarian Update,” OCHA: Harare,$File/full_report.pdf (accessed February 8, 2010).
  9. University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, “Inaugural Speech, Pretoria [Mandela],” University of Pennsylvania, (accessed February 22, 2010).
  10. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “South African mob kills migrants,” BBC, (accessed February 22, 2010).
  11. Celia W. Dugger, “Rising Anger at Other Africans Fuels South Africa Attacks,” The New York Times: New York, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  12. “South Africa’s economy: Steady as she goes,” The Economist, February 27, 2010, 55.
  13. Dugger, “Rising Anger.”
  14. ICG, “Conflict history.”
  15. Columbia International Affairs Online (CIAO), “CIAO Atlas: Zimbabwe,” CIAO and the Economist Intelligence Unit: New York, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  16. ICG, “Conflict history.”
  17. Violet Gonda, “Talks Resume Monday as SA Facilitation Team Arrive in Zimbabwe,” SW Radio Africa: London, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  18. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Consolidated Appeal for Zimbabwe,” OCHA: Geneva, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  19. Ibid.
  20. UN Financial Tracking Service (FTS), “Emergency Zimbabwe 2010,” ReleifWeb: New York, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  21. Celia W. Dugger, “Zimbabwe Divisions Pose a Quandary for West,” The New York Times: Johannesburg, (accessed February 9, 2010).
  22. Betts and Kaytaz, “Zimbabwean exodus.”
  23. The SOUTH AFRICA is also a party to 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1993 Basic Agreement between the Government of South Africa and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  24. Betts and Kaytaz, “Zimbabwean exodus.”
  25. Ibid.

Photos courtesy of:

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

In 1994 South Africa's regime of apartheid, under which the black majority was suppressed and discriminated against by the white minority, came to an end.1The African National Congress (ANC) won the first free elections in the same year, and the paty has held power ever since. When Nelson Mandela became president, he and his party... MORE»
Regionalism—the efforts of a group of nations to enhance their economic, political, social, and cultural interaction—can assume various forms, including regional integration/cooperation, market integration, development integration, with the intent of accommodating the changing national, international, and regional environment... MORE»
This proverb sadly encapsulates the reality of existence for the Zulu people in the last two centuries. Ripped from their positions of power and tossed into the pits of despair, life as they once knew it changed drastically... MORE»
Violence undermines an inclusive national identity that considers those of other races, classes and creeds as compatriots, for as Mirowsky and Ross (1983: 238) note, “When other people in one’s life have become... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in International Affairs

2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
With over 10 million stateless people globally, statelessness has increasingly become a pressing issue in international law. The production of statelessness occurs across multiple lines including technical loopholes, state succession, and discriminatory... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 09
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated current global challenges. However, this article argues that this time of crisis can also be a unique opportunity for the existing global economic institutions - G20, WTO, IMF, and World Bank (WB) - to make the... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02
On January 1st, 1959, a small band of Cuban rebels shocked the world, overthrowing the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. These rebels were especially known for their guerrilla tactics and their leaders, such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 01
Israel has increased the nation’s security presence around the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. Here, the research project analyzes how transaction costs resulting from Israeli security policy impact the output of manufacturing activities... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
The necessity of international relief is unending as new crises continue to emerge across the world. International aid plays a crucial role in shaping how affected communities rebuild after a crisis. However, humanitarian aid often results in a... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 10
This article aims to present the biopiracy of traditional knowledge from India by the United States, which has occurred directly through the use of patent law and indirectly through economic power and cultural imperialism. Throughout this essay,... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10
After joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, Estonians felt secure and in charge of their future. However, following the 2007 Bronze Horseman incident in the Estonian capital of Tallinn which included... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Presentation Tips 101 (Video)
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School
The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts