South African security guards fired teargas canisters Tuesday at a temporary passport application office of the Zimbabwean Consulate in Johannesburg to halt a disturbance among Zimbabweans seeking to file applications for the new passports they need to apply for a four-year residency permit issued by South African authorities.
Zimbabweans working, studying or running businesses in South Africa are trying to beat the clock with a deadline looming on December 31 by which time they must regularize their stay or at least file preliminary paperwork to avoid being subject to deportation.
An estimated 15,000 Zimbabweans had lined up at the Zimbabwean Consulate.
The crowd became restless after hours without visible progress, witnesses said. Tempers flared and people charged towards the gate to the passport offices, leading the security guards to panic and fire teargas cannisters to repel the crowd.
Chaos followed as people ran in all directions. Teargas victim Teresa Nzvombe accused security guards of frustrating those in line by demanding bribes to allow them entry. She said authorities added to the misery of those standing in line by putting those making an initial application and those in the final stages of application in the same line.
Austine Moyo, head of the South African branch of the Movement for Democratic Change formation of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai urged all Zimbabweans who have not applied for passports to use Zimbabwean identity and other documents to file residency permit applications before the deadline, seeking the passport later on.
Earlier this week Home Affairs Department spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa issued a plea urging Zimbabweans to use the time remaining to put in whatever paperwork they can manage. He again stated that the December 31 deadline will not be extended.
Father Mike Nyamarebvu of the Stakeholders Forum comprising officials of the South African Home Affairs Department and Zimbabwean civic groups and political parties told VOA Studio 7 reporter Ntungamili Nkomo that he is happy with the strong turnout by Zimbabweans trying to beat the deadline and legalize their status.