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SA visa requirements rile travellers

IN the bitterly cold winter night Soneni Sibanda, with her one-year-old baby strapped tightly on her back, stands in a long-winding queue moving at a snail’s pace at Beitbridge Border Post, which links Zimbabwe with its southern neighbour, South Africa.

Wongai Zhangazha

Anxiously counting down the hours until she reunites with her husband who works in Johannesburg like hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of other Zimbabweans, Sibanda knows from experience that she must be patient for the border post is usually very busy and occasionally chaotic, what with thousands of Zimbabwean cross-border traders swarming the busiest port of entry in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, her anticipation soon turns to cold apprehension when a South African immigration officer asks her for an affidavit from her husband confirming he approves of her travelling with their son.

Using her passport bearing her double-barrelled surname with both her maiden name and husband’s surname that she shares with her son, Sibanda tries in vain to prove that she is in fact the boy’s mother.

But the busy immigration officer is not interested in hearing her pleas and tells her to go away and only return if she has the affidavit and the child’s long birth certificate.

Sibanda helplessly watches her bus drive off into the night. It is now 2am and she has nowhere to go but to wait until daybreak for her husband to send the affidavit.

Sibanda is just one of many travellers with children that have been turned away because of the new requirements for people travelling with minors.

“Zimbabweans travelling with children at Beitbridge are now being harassed and denied entry for not having the long birth certificates and affidavits,” Sibanda said.

“At Beitbridge (South African side) Home Affairs wants three things if you are travelling with a child: a passport, birth (long one) and affidavit from the father if it’s the mother traveling with child or from mother if it’s the father travelling. It is harassment and many people are being turned back.”

At the beginning of the month the South African government announced new visa regulations which require foreigners who want to visit South Africa to apply for visas in person at the South African embassies abroad and have their biometric data (fingerprints) captured.

The new regulations also require children under the age of 18 to carry full or unabridged birth certificates showing the names of both parents when travelling. If both parents are not travelling with the child, more documents in the form of affidavits are needed.

It also requires when only one parent is travelling with a child that the other parent provides an affidavit providing consent.
In the event that one of the parents is dead, a certified copy of the death certificate must be carried. And in the case the father’s whereabouts are unknown, the mother needs to produce an affidavit saying she is solely responsible for the child.

When a child is travelling alone to South Africa s/he must carry a letter from the person that would be receiving him or her in South Africa, containing the person’s address and contact details, as well as a copy of the host’s identity document or passport. In this case, the Immigration Amendment Act makes no mention of carrying a birth certificate. When parents are of the same sex, the full birth certificate allows for same-sex parents to travel with their children.

The Immigration Amendment Act states that when children are travelling without their parents they must carry an affidavit from parents confirming they have permission to travel without them — whether alone, or with a relative, school group or friends — as well as copies of the parents’ identity documents and contact details.

But when parents are divorced the Act is not clear on requirements. However, officials suggest that a certified copy of the divorce order should be carried in addition to the letter of consent from the other parent and a copy of their identity document.
Furthermore, if the parent not travelling with the child has refused to give consent then the other parent will have to get a court order.

Supporting the new regulations, the South African government argues that the restrictions will help curb child trafficking, estimating that at least 30 000 children are prostituted through human trafficking annually in South Africa and 50% of them are under the age of 14.

Last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) at Musina, the northernmost town of South Africa adjacent to Beitbridge also confirmed that smuggling of children was rife.
Illegal Zimbabweans staying in SA were criticised for using long-distance taxi drivers popularly known as omalayitsha to smuggle their under age children in and out of South Africa.

IOM spokesperson Gaone Dixon said parents solicit the illegal transporters to fetch their children from Zimbabwe to join them for holidays and this has exposed children to vulnerable situations.
However, opposition parties, human rights groups and tourism firms in South Africa have criticised the new requirements.

But South African ambassador to Zimbabwe Vusi Mavimbela said those against the new regulations have not gone through the painful experience of missing a child, hence they think it’s not a serious matter.

“Only three weeks ago a good Samaritan brought in a boy of 12 years of age to the embassy after he found the boy in the streets,” Mavimbela said. “We did our investigations with SA police and discovered that this boy has been reported missing by his parents for a month. He is now back with his parents and the man who smuggled him from SA was arrested. This is just an example I am giving but there are thousands and thousands of cases of children missing.”

South African tourism figures for 2014 indicated that arrivals from China dropped 24,6% to just under 83 000, an alarming drop as the tourism industry had reported a steady rise in Chinese tourists in previous years, with a 14,7% increase to reach 151 847 in 2013.
Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (Zef) chairperson Gabriel Shumba on Wednesday said there are many changes in the regulations.

“The new regulations also seek to make it impossible to apply for asylum inside South Africa, but rather at the border. This has the potential of violating not only SA and regional obligations to asylum seekers and refugees, but also international conventions.

“While there is a clear need to protect children from trafficking, Zef believes that this will not be achieved by imposing more rigorous requirements on those seeking to partner, enter or leave SA. These requirements can only reinforce the perception that SA wants to be an island in Africa, which is unfortunate.”

For Sibanda, the new requirements amount to an escalation of the harassment Zimbabweans have for long complained about at the hands of South African immigration officers.

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