There’s a big immigration story in South Africa this week. It’s not getting much international attention but it’s important for this country, and the story is timeless and universal in many ways.

Zimbabwe, South Africa’s neighbor to the north and once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries, has fallen on very hard times in recent years, and millions of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa. Estimates vary, but there are between two and five million Zimbabweans here. Most of them are what American immigration officials call “undocumented.”

A few months ago the South African government announced that by December 31, all Zimbabweans (or “Zimbos”) living in South Africa must submit paperwork to become legal residents. Those who don’t comply will be deported. December 31 is tomorrow, which has created a fair amount of panic.

Joe has been covering the situation all week and I’ve accompanied him to various immigration offices and consulates, practicing at being a journalist. We’ve seen some pretty amazing sights.

Part of the 3-kilometer-long queue at the temporary Zimbabwe consulate outside Johannesburg this morning. Joe and I spent two days trying to find this temporary consulate. We searched the internet, asked at gas stations, inquired at the Home Affairs office downtown. We even drove right past it once and didn’t see it across the highway. Somehow, 50,000 people applying for Zimbabwean passports were able to find it before we did.

Another view of the queue.

Despite the way it looks, the security guard is not preparing to stab the man in front of him. He’s using that stick to raise the tape so people can pass under.

Men jockey for position in line at the South African Home Affairs office in downtown Joburg. After applying for passports at the Zimbabwe consulate, everyone has to go to Home Affairs to apply for a South African residency permit. The line at
Home Affairs stretched around two city blocks.

I don’t want to get into the politics of the situation, whether the South African government is right or wrong, what Zimbabwe’s role is, or how this might play out in the United States. It’s so complicated I can barely understand it myself.

But what strikes me are the human stories that make up a news story like this. Millions of individual people who have left their homeland behind out of desperation and are trying to survive. Many of the Zimbabweans I spoke to were teachers or doctors or engineers back home, but here they do manual labor for $15 a day. Every day they spend waiting in line for a visa is a day of missed work. Many of them still have spouses and children in Zimbabwe but they are terrified to go back and visit, for fear they won’t be able to get out again.

“I’ve been here since 3:00 a.m.,” said Mike, a 21-year-old waiter who was slogging along in the line at the consulate. I heard of others who spent the night, or even two or three consecutive nights, waiting in line. “This process is slow. They will never finish.”

“We’re suffering!” a woman called out.

“R750 (about $110) is too much for this passport,” said Wellington, who was waiting in line with his wife and baby. Wellington submitted his passport application two months ago and still hasn’t received it.

Wellington and his family.

Officer Tshabangu, a member of the South African police force who was in charge of crowd control outside the consulate. He wanted me to take his photo. Two days ago, there was some unrest outside the consulate and police reportedly fired teargas at the crowd. But today things were calm. Everyone wants to get their paperwork done and get the heck out of there.

These people were getting close to the front of the line and feeling pretty happy about it.

Not everyone was excited about being photographed and I really can’t blame them.

“It’s hard being a Zimbo,” said one guy as I walked by. Hard indeed.

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