As Green-Cards Are Denied In SA, One Man Built A Lucrative Underground Enterprise With Forged Visas
His name is a clue. “Diggy” digs for money where his neighbours hardly guess. The 37-year-old unscrupulously manufactures fake visas and work permits in his one room apartment for thousands of foreigners in South Africa.
South Africa| Diggy’s one-room apartment isn't much of a home - it has a tiny bed and several suitcases scattered on the floor. The bags, he tells me, are full of “important documents." And although the place is cramped he doesn't mind because it's a safe haven for him to get his job done without detection.
Right beside the bags lies his money-making tools - a laptop, printer, and an annoyingly old scanner. These are the key ingredients to printing fake visas for South Africa's swelling undocumented foreign residents.
For hundreds of thousands of these laborers from nearby Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi working legally in South Africa - they no longer see the country as the land where decent pay-checks and dreams can come true.
The shattered hopes of a better life came after it was announced in November by SA's government that it would not renew temporary permits of around a quarter-of-a-million Zimbabweans working in the country when their visas expired in December.
Some 250,000 Zimbabweans fleeing political and economic crises at home had been granted four-year work visas in 2009. And although the visas have been repeatedly extended, the government said there would be no further extension.
The announcement opened the potential for mass expulsion of workers.
So anti-foreigner visa rules, meant to protect jobs for locals, throw desperate immigrants into limbo and thus become a bonanza for visa forging dare-dos like Diggy.
"Business is booming in our underground visa gigs. We see desperate immigrants from Malawi or Mozambique, sometimes denied public hospital care because they don't have visas to be in South Africa. We help them.
"South Africa has simply ordered quarter a million Zimbabweans to go home, this puts my services in hot demand,” says Diggy, 37, who grew up in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe.
He add while laughing: “Bring me requests for a visa, even veterinary certificates to carry puppies aboard airplanes, I´ll produce it."
A Zimbabwean immigrant, Diggy came to South Africa in 2010, hoping for a straightforward life until he realized in Johannesburg city and elsewhere he cannot settle because he has no visa to stay.
Wherever he found work they asked him for a legitimate worker permit which he did not have.
Eventually he settled for hustling to survive and sustain his wife and two sons who are now 17 and 6 and living with their mother in Zimbabwe.
He became a father for the first time at the age of 20 and immediately felt acute pressure to jump the borders illegally and head to South Africa, where he had previously been told he could earn money for his family.
But instead he was only met with similar hardships.
It wasn't until a friend gave him the keys to making a sustainable but illegal income.
“A friend from a West Africa country coached me to make all sorts of papers from driver licenses, car permits, birth certificates, or yellow fever vaccination certificates. I became a lifesaver to fellow immigrants. I´m part of a network,” he says.
On a good day, 10 customers can knock on Diggy´s door as early as 6 am, he says, after they place orders via WhatsApp, he says. His charges range from US$40 to US$300 for complex documents such as fake permanent residence visas.
“I got replicas of all visa types in my computer, all l need is the client’s personal information; it does not take me more than an hour to produce a Diggy original. Bring me any document and l will produce it. I do all types of visas. Anything that is paper related is my specialty,” he laughs.
Some of his clients don’t mind about the quality of the paper he forges documents on.
For example, asylum visa clients don’t care about quality of the paper as they're simply desperate but special papers which look like the real deal are ordered from high-paying clients.
“I got all sorts of fake stamps and yes they appear genuine. I´m also an expert in forging signatures,” he says.
His clients range from immigrant gardeners, electricians and plumbers who are keen to continue working without trouble in South Africa´s affluent suburbs like Sandton.
“They are very skilled artisans, landscapers, bricklayers but got no hope of getting legitimate work permits in South Africa,” he says.
But in the last two years Diggy says he has begun to see an interesting profile of clientele.
“The educated cant get visas because South Africa wants to put is citizen graduates in those white-collar jobs and remove foreigners. So to keep their kids in school and work trouble free they take chances on my fake residence permits. Some have acquired properties in South Africa and don’t want to lose their future for having expired work permits.
"The ill, pregnant women immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe feel South Africa has better, free public hospitals so they want fake visas so they can stay here and access free maternity or kidney failure dialysis hospital services,” he says.
Diggy is one of many immigrants living in South Africa who have turned to the illicit trade of fake visas to earn a living. His clients’ base keeps increasing as the immigration hostile regime expands.
A big forged visas economy
The forged visas economy in South is huge, argues Dennis Juru, president of the South Africa International Cross borders Traders Association who lobbies for EU-style borderless treaties in the Southern Africa region so that lorry drivers and haulers can travel without worrying about cumbersome border checks.
“South Africa´s immigration regime is now so hostile that well-meaning people get tempted to work with dubious papers,” he says.
Dozens of suspects are arrested yearly in South Africa for running schemes of producing fake visas for sale to desperate foreign workers but the networks are so deeply established that police struggle to keep up with the offences.
“We crack down to the fullest extent of the law anyone found manufacturing or selling fake visas, drivers licenses, IDs in South Africa. Jail sentences are stiff for offenders,” reiterated Siyabulela Qoza, the spokesperson for the South Africa immigration ministry.
However, critics argue that South Africa´s tightening immigration rules are in response to a massive swell of political pressure to gift jobs to locals first and sideline foreigners.
In 2021, two acute political forces have occurred that make the plight of foreigners in South Africa harder.
First strident, upstart anti-immigrant parties like Action SA, fronted by Mr. Herman Mashaba, have grabbed a huge chunk of votes from the ruling Africa National Congress on the back of messaging that promise to win back jobs, houses and social services for South African citizens and make foreigners an afterthought.
The COVID-19 pandemic which has made South Africa host the world´s largest youth unemployment, has made foreigners in the country bear the label of “job grabbers.”
“South Africa´s immigration has met the catch-22 fix of nationalistic politics. The ruling Africa National Congess party, the party of Nelson Mandela, is afraid of being ousted in 2024 if it doesn’t make life hard for foreigners and be seen to be putting South Africans first.
"So this hostile immigration regime is not only targeted at Zimbabweans, but everyone, Congolese, Nigerians, Europeans pretty much anyone foreigner,” argues Yasin Kakande, African immigration scholar, TEDx speaker, and author of Why we Are Coming.