JOHANNESBURG -- Wednesday's steady rain made the wait particularly miserable for Zimbabwean immigrants crowded outside a South African immigration office, trying to legalize their status before a feared wave of deportations.
As many as 3 million Zimbabweans are believed to be living and working in South Africa after fleeing entwined economic collapse and a political crisis in their homeland. South African authorities, who had allowed many to stay without even passports, announced the crackdown in September, saying that those who did not apply for legal status before Dec. 31 would have to go home.
That has led to crowds at immigration offices across South Africa, with some Zimbabweans lining up for several days before even getting in the door to apply for work or study permits. Human rights groups complained that four months was insufficient and that bureaucrats in Zimbabwe and South Africa were unprepared for the large numbers of applicants.
"Just being legal, it would change my life. I would be more comfortable," said Frank Nkathazo, a 37-year-old gardener who was waiting to submit his application Wednesday with little hope of reaching the doors before they closed at 4 p.m.
Zimbabweans make up the largest immigrant group in South Africa. Rights groups say legalizing Zimbabweans would ensure they pay taxes and that their children go to school so that they can grow up to contribute to the economy of their adopted country, echoing arguments in immigration debates in the United States and Europe.
The decision to document Zimbabweans is "very worthwhile," said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of the Johannesburg offices of Lawyers for Human Rights, but she stressed that the deadline should be extended.
Immigration minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said deportations would not start until all applications are processed, acknowledging that could take some time. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, she said she could not say when deportations would begin.
In early 2009, South Africa announced Zimbabweans could travel here on a free 90-day visitor's permit and apply to do casual work during their stay. It was the end of that "special dispensation" that was announced in September, with South African officials citing improved economic and political conditions in Zimbabwe.
Nkathazo, the gardener from Plumtree in western Zimbabwe, stood under his umbrella outside a handsome concrete and brick office tower on the edge of downtown Johannesburg, clutching a purple plastic folder stuffed with his new passport and a letter from his employer. He even brought a South African ID card he had lied to obtain years ago. South African authorities have said those who obtained South African identity documents illegally will get amnesty if they return them.
Nkathazo had arrived at 6 a.m. to find hundreds already there even though the office did not open until 8 a.m. Nkathazo said he would wait all day, and come back earlier the next time if he failed to get in on Wednesday
To qualify, applicants must prove they have been in South Africa since at least May this year. Nkathazo has been here 15 years, and the ease with which he has regularly ferried between his wife and four children in Zimbabwe and his job in South Africa demonstrates how just how porous the border is.
Ahead of Nkathazo a woman sat wrapped in a blanket, huddling under an umbrella on a concrete stump planted at the entrance to the building to keep cars from parking too close. Entrepreneurs sold brightly colored plastic envelopes to keep precious documents dry. Business was brisk for the envelopes and for umbrellas as rush hour traffic splashed by.
Bryan Khumalo, a 27-year-old computer consultant, said he had lined up for four days to apply in September, and last week received a cell phone text message informing him he had been granted a work permit. He arrived at 4 a.m. Wednesday, but was still 87th in line. Experience had taught him only 50 or 60 people make it inside on any day, and he was resigned to returning.
"Some guys sleep here," Khumalo said.