At a time when the country was known as the “breadbasket of Africa”, hundreds of thousands of persons migrated to Zimbabwe, mostly as farm labourers from neighboring countries in Southern Africa. In the initial blush of post-independence, the Zimbabwean Constitution of 1983 acknowledged this migrant population by allowing citizenship to flow from birth on the territory to children whose parents were citizens, ordinary residents or became permanent residents after their birth.
By the year 2000, it was estimated that around 30% of the two million farm workers in Zimbabwe, and their families, were of foreign descent. In Zimbabwe in total, an estimated 1.5 million persons had links to Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique and up to 12,000 Zimbabweans were reportedly of Indian extraction. By this stage, these were mostly second- or third-generation immigrants. As a result of their family’s long period of residence in the country, and their being born on the territory, these descendants were entitled to Zimbabwean nationality under the country’s Constitution and the Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act.
However, also by the year 2000, the political and economic climate in Zimbabwe had darkened. For the first time, Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, were suffering from cracks in their traditionally solid support-base. Facing the possibility of significant losses in the up-coming 2002 elections, ZANU-PF turned on the population it perceived as the key opponent to its regime; white Zimbabweans. The party launched an aggressive land reform programme, aimed primarily at disenfranchising white commercial farm-owners of the income that was perceived as the financial backbone of the MDC (the main opposition political party).
A less publicized reform which ZANU-PF pushed through Parliament was the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2001. This legislation provided that a citizen of Zimbabwe who, at the date of commencement of the Amendment, is also a citizen of a foreign country would automatically lose their citizenship unless, within six months, they were able to renounce their foreign citizenship in accordance with the law of that foreign country.
Again, the main aim of this reform was to disenfranchise white Zimbabweans, a good deal of whom were still in possession of British passports. Thus, initially, the Director General applied the Amendment only to this group. As a result, only Europeans were targeted by media campaigns advertising the new law and the deadline for applicants wishing to retain their citizenship. Moreover, the publicity campaign had a limited geographic reach – it is reported that only persons in Harare were at all aware of the new law and its impending deadline.
Before long, however, the new law was applied to all migrant populations, as the increasingly intolerant government became suspicious of anyone with foreign ties. The application of the new provision also came to affect the large community of migrant farm workers, for example, who had worked under white farmers for generations and were perceived as being sympathetic to their political perspective.
Problematically, however, this extension of the application of the Amendment to all Zimbabwean citizens with foreign heritage was instigated in practice only after the six month deadline had already lapsed. By this stage, these groups could no longer take any action to prevent the loss of their Zimbabwean citizenship by operation of law.
Furthermore, Registrar General Tobaiwa Mudede has interpreted the Amendment to cover not only actual dual citizens, but also anyone with a possible claim to citizenship elsewhere. Thus, anyone who is of foreign extraction, and who did not comply with the six-month deadline for renouncing this presumed foreign nationality, is assumed to have automatically forfeited their Zimbabwean citizenship in 2002.
Indeed, still today, many persons who have a valid Zimbabwean ID document trundle down to their local Department of Home Affairs to apply for the renewal of their passports or identity cards, only to be informed that they are no longer citizens of Zimbabwe. Those who approach the Zimbabwean department of Home Affairs for any services connected with citizenship are now required to submit a “long” birth certificate (which lists the names and nationalities of both parents), and anyone with even one foreign parent is informed that they lost their Zimbabwean nationality in 2002.
The only option available to the hundreds and thousands who were blindsided by this sweeping exercise in denationalisation is to apply for resumption of citizenship. This process still requires conformity with the Registrar-General’s imaginative interpretation of the law, however, in that anyone with a foreign-born parent is required to renounce their claim to that nationality in accordance with the law of that country. The process of renunciation is expensive and lengthy, and in many cases there is in fact no basis for renunciation under the foreign law; either the applicant lacks sufficient proof of their foreign ties or has in fact lost all rights to nationality in the country of their heritage.
Simplified, the problem is this: those who have a foreign parent are assumed by the Zimbabwean administration to have a claim to this foreign nationality. But the one is not a logical corollary of the other; it is quite possible that one is born and raised in Zimbabwe by a Zimbabwean mother and a Malawian father, for example, without ever having accessed Malawian nationality or even visited Malawi. Under Malawian citizenship law, a person born abroad to a Malawian citizen must exercise their right to Malawian citizenship before the age of 21 and Malawian authorities do not accept a Zimbabwean birth certificate as proof of Malawian descent. Hence, a 22 year old Zimbabwean who possesses only a Zimbabwean birth certificate will never be able to access Malawian citizenship. He is practically incapable, thus, of renouncing this citizenship. And, as a result, he is equally incapable of accessing his Zimbabwean citizenship. He is stateless in the country of his mother, the country of his birth and the only country he has ever lived in.
The rural farm-working community, in particular, faced a myriad of such barriers. Due to high levels of illiteracy they were largely undocumented and had limited access to information regarding the changes to their birth right to Zimbabwean nationality. Many experience great difficulty in gaining access to the consular services of their heritage country; either for lack of documentary proof of a claim, transport to the consulates or resources to pay for the processing of their renunciation.
In 2003 a further Amendment provided some relief – it allowed anyone who is a descendant of an unskilled migrant worker who came to Zimbabwe from a Southern African state prior to 1980, and who has resided in Zimbabwe continuously from birth, to qualify for resumption and certification of citizenship. Regrettably, however, the requirements listed in this amendment exclude a large number of those affected by the original amendment and its application. And although the Department of Home Affairs’ implementation of the law has been repeatedly and successfully challenged in Zimbabwean courts, the practice continues to date. For example, in 2002, the High Court ruled in favour of Judith Todd (daughter of former Rhodesian Prime Minister Sir Garﬁeld Todd) whose citizenship had been withdrawn as a result of her failure to renounce her claim to New Zealand citizenship. The registrar-general asserted that Judith Todd ought to have renounced New Zealand citizenship as a result of her father’s birth on New Zealand territory. The court, however, ruled that she had not lost her Zimbabwean citizenship, and ordered that her passport be restored [Todd v. Registrar-General of Citizenship and Another (HC 55/2002)  ZWHHC 76, 7 May 2002].
In practice, however, the Director General respects court orders such as this only as regards the individual which the court order relates directly to. This restricts the applicability of jurisprudence on the withdrawal of citizenship to those individuals who were successful in court only. Hence, only those who are in a position to approach the courts are likely to find redress.
In Zimbabwe, those affected are completely marginalized, their identity documents are seized. The shock of this scramble for nationality has sent ripples of destabilisation throughout the region; undocumented and denationalised Zimbabweans are looking outside for assistance and finding the mechanisms for the protection of stateless persons on the continent sorely lacking.
Guest authors: Rosalind Elphick and Jessica George, Legal Counselors working on Lawyers for Human Rights Statelessness Project, South Africa.
The views expressed are those of the authors.