In an effort to reduce waves of Zimbabwean asylum seekers, South Africa announced Monday that its neighbor's citizens can travel here on a free 90-day visitor's permit and apply to do casual work during their stay.
Immigration minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula appeared with her two Zimbabwean counterparts to make the announcement. Zimbabwe has two home affairs ministers under a power-sharing agreement implemented earlier this year to try to resolve the country's economic and political crises.
Mapisa-Nqakula said the new regulations came into effect May 1, but acknowledged bureaucratic hurdles could slow implementation.
"We have a significant number of economic migrants from Zimbabwe," Mapisa-Nqakula said.
South African officials have been overwhelmed by Zimbabweans, who apply for asylum at a rate of more than 8,000 a day, and they believe many will now opt for the visitor's permit. Most asylum seekers are denied because South African officials believe most Zimbabweans are not fleeing out of fear or persecution, but to find work as their economy collapses.
Monday's announcement could be seen as an acknowledgment that South Africa does not expect the stream of Zimbabweans to slow soon, despite hopes raised by the power-sharing government formed by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change.
International donors have been slow to respond to calls for help from the unity government, waiting to see whether it endures and fulfills promises to shore up democracy and rule of law in Zimbabwe after years of abuses blamed on Mugabe. The political marriage by the rivals has been shaky _ as illustrated by the appearance of two Zimbabwean home affairs ministers alongside Mapisa-Nqakula.
Both parties insisted on control of the key ministry, which also oversees police accused of attacks on Mugabe's rivals, and in the end they had to share it.
On Monday, the ZANU-PF co-minister, Kembo Mohadi, insisted Zimbabwe had no political prisoners. Some Zimbabweans in South Africa have said they cannot return until political prisoners are freed. Mohadi's MDC counterpart, Giles Mutsekwa, disagreed, saying party leaders were still negotiating on how to address the issue of political prisoners.
But Mutsekwa added that all the parties were "committed to this inclusive government," adding: "The people of Zimbabwe have not got any hope other than pinning their hopes on this inclusive government."
The unity government was formed to turn around an economic crisis that began with a land redistribution campaign in 2000. The often-violent campaign disrupted the agriculture-based economy of what was once the region's breadbasket. Mugabe blames Western sanctions for his country's economic woes, even though they are targeted at him and his cronies and not the country.
According to the United Nations, 83 percent of Zimbabweans live on less than $2 a day, and 7 million, more than half the population, receive food aid. Zimbabweans come to South Africa to earn money to send back to relatives, or to buy food and other necessities that have been scarce at home.
Human Rights Watch, among several international rights groups that have been pressing South Africa to ease restrictions on Zimbabwean immigration for humanitarian reasons, called the change outlined Monday a "positive development." But Tiseke Kasambala, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwe expert for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that the change needed to be widely advertised and thoroughly explained.
Human Rights Watch has complained that a directive issued by the Home Affairs Ministry earlier this month to stop deporting Zimbabweans for six months has not been followed on the ground, in part because South African police are unaware of the new rules.
Kasambala said Zimbabweans need to know they can still apply for asylum if they feel that is warranted, as well as for longer term visas to enter South Africa.
She said South Africans who might see the Zimbabweans as competition for scarce jobs in a depressed economy should understand that employers who might once have seen the Zimbabweans as easy to exploit would now more likely follow minimum wage and other employment rules for all job seekers.