An interrogation of the impact of foreigners on the South African labour market at Parliament yesterday turned into a navel gazing operation in which the Home Affairs Department admitted there was an immense problem of outsiders lining their pockets with social welfare grants.
Home Affairs deputy director-general Jackson Mckay told MPs on the labour portfolio committee that Zimbabwean nationals were known to “cross the border” into South Africa at about that time of the month when social grant payments were made.
They collected their cheques and then ducked back home. This pointed to the problem of foreigners – particularly Zimbabweans – gaining fraudulent access to South African identity documents. The ID scam is understood, however, to also include nationals of Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland.
The department has also been alerted to a case of one businessman who was manufacturing South African documents, including IDs, marriage certificates and passports.
In a written reply to questions, Home Affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni told DA MP Annette Lovemore – who alerted the department to the alleged fraud more than six months ago – that an investigator was looking into the case.
Lovemore told the department that this businessman then used a home affairs official – not yet identified – to place the documentation on the home affairs database, turning the foreigners into “legitimate” South Africans.
The department was unable to give figures relating to the extent of the problem but one insider said it could amount to thousands of people.
This places an extra burden on the already embattled SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), which is paying out 15 million monthly grants and old age pensions. No one could say yesterday to what extent these went to foreigners and hence were fraudulent payments.
Mckay told MPs on the labour portfolio committee that the department had become concerned about the mass exodus of “South Africans” to Zimbabwe at Easter and Christmas each year. Although Zimbabwe obviously had its attractions, he told MPs, the figures – which he did not release – were way above what could be regarded as normal.
These figures related to Zimbabweans who held South Africa identity documents, not Zimbabweans with their own identify documents and passports. A spot check in December at the Musina border post showed 3 000 Zimbabweans had South African ID books that were fraudulently obtained.
Home Affairs communications officer Gcinile Mabulu referred queries to Sassa deputy director-general Bandile Maqetuka, but he was not available for comment. Mabulu said the agency was taking steps to identify those who were fraudulently gaining access to social grants.
Earlier this month, Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said the department had adjudicated 275 000 applications for work, study, and business permits from “undocumented” Zimbabwean nationals, which had to be submitted by the end of last year.
DA labour spokesman Ian Ollis said he believed there could be between 1.2 million and 4 million Zimbabweans living in exile in South Africa. “It is anybody’s guess,” he said, noting that those who did not apply for permits last year would now be deported.
Labour committee chairman Mamagase Nchabeleng said there was a township at Musina called Nancyfield were the language “on the streets” was Shona – the main language of Zimbabwe.
But he emphasised that in terms of labour law, Zimbabweans – whether legal or illegal – had the same rights as South Africans. This included minimum pay levels.
Referring to illegal use of South African IDs, McKay said lack of integration between the Home Affairs Department’s computer systems allowed people to “reside in different regimes within the department’s databases”.
Sometimes they had different names and enjoyed “multiple benefits”. He gave the example of a Zimbabwean who was called John Smith in South Africa but was “John Ncube” back at home.
McKay noted that it was not only Zimbabweans who were taking advantage of fraudulently obtained documents, but Zimbabweans constituted the overwhelming number of economic refugees.
Of the 66 000 work permits issued by the department in the first three months of this financial year, 59 363 went to Zimbabweans.