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By Neo Kolane
There is confusion among Lesotho nationals working in South Africa following contradicting statements on the fate of the Lesotho Exemption Permits (LEP), which are set to expire on the last day of this year.
Introduced in 2019 and expiring on December 31 2023, the LEP is a four-year document that legalises the stay of Lesotho nationals in South Africa. An estimated 90 314 Basotho are on the permit which allows them to live, work and study in the neighbouring country legally.
Foreign affairs and international relations minister Lejone Mpotjoane raised people’s hopes when he told parliament on November 16 that the LEPs will be renewed and improved to benefit Basotho working in South Africa.
Mpotjoane, who fell short of indicating the length of the extension, said the two governments were in talks to discuss the modalities and terms of the renewal.
“South Africa has statutory processes it needs to follow to implement the agreement. The Lesotho government’s expectation is that before the end of December, South Africa will have gone through all the processes.
“Therefore, the LEPs will have been renewed before Basotho nationals go back to work (after the festive holidays),” Mpotjoane said.
On the other hand, the SA High Commission’s political counselor, Mark Reynhardt this week denied cognisance of the renewal of the LEP’s.
“That is something we do not deal with as the High Commission; it’s dealt with between the home affairs departments of both countries. What I am aware of though is that there are ongoing talks to that effect.
“However, I am going to ask the SA immigration officer for further details and get back to you,” Reynhardt indicated.
At the time of going to print, he had not reverted back to us, and attempts to get hold of him were unsuccessful as his phone rang unanswered, save for an automated SMS that he was in a meeting and would return our call.
As expected, Basotho working in South Africa are anxious over the possible implications of the impending expiration of the LEP.
Lineo Phulane, a domestic worker at Fourways in Johannesburg, said the expiration of the permit will throw Basotho’s lives into disarray.
Phulane noted that many Basotho working in South Africa have opened bank accounts using their permits, and the bankers are already sending them messages that they should renew their accounts.
“If the 31st (December) comes without us renewing our permits, the banks will freeze the accounts and close them whether there is money or not.
“We will encounter problems at passport control when travelling back home, as our passports are going to be blacklisted because we will now be deemed to have stayed in South Africa illegally. At the same time, even if we do pass that hurdle, coming back to South Africa will be problematic as we no longer comfortable or safe staying here.
“We are usually advised as early as October to renew our permits, but we are now in November and we have not heard anything,” Phulane added.
However, upon being told of Minister Mpotjoane’s announcement, her mood lightened up a bit. She remained cautious though.
“If we do not receive those (renewal) messages by December 15, then I will know it will not be happening,” Phulane pointed out.
‘Malehloka Ranthoba, who also works as a domestic worker in Rustenburg, was worried about the expiry of the LEP and the fact that her passport expires in January 2024.
“Obtaining a new one will be difficult because new ones are not being issued. Applying for a new passport is a long tedious process sometimes fraught with a lot of red tape.
“I wonder what I will do if we are told to go and renew our permits in SA. I might be forced to quit my job,” Ranthoba said.
The looming expiry of the special permit follows a recent South Africa-Lesotho Bi-National Commission which gave rise to talks of a Lesotho-South Africa specific migration model which may allow Basotho to stay for 90 days per visit should engagements proceed well.
Local government, chieftainship, home affairs and police minister Lebona Lephema, in a recent television interview said LEP replaced the Lesotho Special Permit (LSP) which expired on December 31, 2019.
Lephema said during the Bi-National Commission talks, one of the main issues that was discussed was the free movement of people between Lesotho and South Africa.
He noted that Lesotho has one neighbouring country, and there are Basotho who visit South Africa for health, business and education related errands.
These always had the 30 days’ visa into South Africa, following the abolition of the six-month concession.
“We have always regarded the one-month as unfair for Basotho and it was agreed that all the SADC countries would have a 90-day visa to South Africa, so Lesotho must also be afforded the 90 days as well.
“The matter has since been finalised, and Lesotho is also going to be afforded 90 days,” Lephema explained.
The South African government lost a court battle in September this year over its plans to cancel the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP).
For its part, the scheduled expiry of the Lesotho Special Permit has seen little to no resistance, with no court action challenge to date.
Lesotho nationals like Phulane are optimistic that South Africa’s cabinet will approve the renewal of the permit in December.
In another development, the issue of expiring LEPs has piqued the interest of politicians.
Basotho National Party leader, Machesetsa Mofomobe this week warned that desperate Basotho might either resort to working in SA illegally or lose their jobs and come back to Lesotho to starve if the permits are not renewed.
“At the same time, if they are renewed, a Mosotho will have to pay about M1 000 for a new LEP and another M630 for an urgent passport. It is not possible for those working in South Africa to pay the usual M130 to apply for a passport because it only comes out after up to five months. You can’t get an LEP if your passport has expired or is nearing expiry,” he said.