Don’t drive away the people South Africa needs

zilleAt the end of May, the Department of Home Affairs gazetted new regulations that make it considerably harder for citizens of other countries to enter South Africa.

The new regulations distinguish between short-stay visas and long-stay permits. One of the most significant changes is that visa applications or extensions can now only be made at missions abroad where details are biometrically captured and visas collected in person. Anyone traveling with a minor will also now need to be in possession of the child’s unabridged birth certificate and, in some cases, affidavits by missing parents as well as translations of birth certificates issued in other languages.

At first glance, the reasoning behind these regulations sounds fair: strengthen our border management, curb illegal immigration and prevent human trafficking.

But make no mistake – these regulations will do none of these things. They are poorly conceived, prematurely implemented and will have a profoundly negative impact on jobs and our economy.

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba will tell you the regulations are there to protect us. He’ll also say they’re no worse than the hoops we South Africans have to jump through when traveling to many other destinations.

Of course all countries have a duty to protect their borders. All countries also have the right to attract tourism, investment and talent while controlling the influx of unskilled immigrants. But if proper systems to balance these complex requirements are not in place, all you will do is effectively kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of tourism, investment and jobs.

President Jacob Zuma has repeatedly committed his government to implementing the National Development Plan (NDP). What he and his government do not seem to grasp, is that policy choices must be made on the basis of whether they will promote or undermine the NDP.

The NDP emphasises the importance of tourism to growth and job creation. The sector currently employs 600 000 people and contributes over 3% to our GDP. According to the NDP, tourism should be able to create in the region of 225 000 additional jobs by 2020 while contributing, directly and indirectly, around R500 billion to our GDP. That could be an enormous contribution to our primary goal of poverty reduction.

We believe this is achievable, but not if we keep on placing more hurdles in front of the people whose business we desperately need.

Judging by backlogs and turnaround time, our systems at Home Affairs are certainly not in place to handle the current (let alone an extra) level of administrative complexity. But it’s abroad, at our foreign missions where the visas are processed, where the real problem lies.

Consider a country the size of China, where we spend a huge amount of time and money marketing ourselves as a tourist and business destination. There, would-be tourists and investors only have the options of Shanghai or Beijing to apply for visas and have their details captured. It’s clear why this system is disastrous for our prospects of increasing Chinese tourism. Reports already indicate that Chinese operators have stopped promoting South Africa and are sending their clients elsewhere in Africa. We should be making it easier – the countries competing with us for tourist dollars certainly are – and yet we make it harder.

Here’s another fact: according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in- and outbound travel in South Africa was worth R24 billion last year. A quarter of this came from people travelling with children. And now we want to make life more difficult for these travellers through regulations that far exceed global standards. No one denies that child trafficking needs to be stopped, but making it near impossible to travel here with children cannot be the solution.

Many recent news reports have focused on how the new regulations have already started tearing families apart. Spouses, and even young children, have been declared “undesirable” for overstaying their visas, and then denied re-entry into the country. These are people who are waiting for Home Affairs to process their applications and are now turned into criminals by this clumsy and ill-conceived legislation.

Before we even consider tourism and investment numbers, these regulations have an even more immediate and direct impact on jobs. Home Affairs has now outsourced the processing of visa applications to UK-based company, VSF Global, which could have dire consequences for many local immigration practitioners. It is estimated that there are currently between 400 and 500 immigration practitioners in South Africa, and that each of them employs, on average, 6 to 8 people including couriers and messengers. That’s thousands of jobs we can ill afford to lose.

Government will argue that they need the biometric system to operate from one place, but there is no reason why this could not be replicated across the existing practitioners. In fact, government should have doubled the number of local companies, thereby doubling the jobs and the efficiency of the service.

On top of this, VSF Global will also charge a R1350 handling fee per visa application in addition to the cost of the visa. So not only is it now difficult to obtain a visa, it’s also very expensive.

The fact is immigration is a complex issue wherever you go in the world.

In an ideal universe, we would enjoy an “Open, Opportunity World for All” – a world in which everyone is free to move around as they choose with no restrictions. But our world doesn’t work that way. It is still based on the concept of the nation state, of which there are about 196 today. International law respects national sovereignty (comprising territory, population, authority and recognition). Countries are governed by profoundly differing ideologies, policies, tax collection and budgetary allocation systems, as well as accountability mechanisms.  People’s birthplace and citizenship shape their destiny in countless ways, and it is understandable that many are desperate to escape the countries of their birth.

Like all decent and compassionate people, we accept our “responsibility to protect” people whose lives are at risk. And we know that mechanisms are required to distinguish between genuine “asylum seekers” and people who would merely prefer to live somewhere else.

At this stage of human evolution, democratic countries play by these rules. They have to attract skilled people, tourists and investors in order to grow their economies and create jobs. But at the same time they must be wary of the enormous strain that uncontrolled immigration of unskilled people places on state resources. South Africa is no different. We cannot carry the consequences of all our continent’s problems.

The stark fact is that South Africa has 6 million registered personal taxpayers and 16 million grant recipients. This is an unsustainable ratio. We simply have to extend our tax base through investment, economic growth and job creation. Otherwise our social safety net will soon be unaffordable. And our social infrastructure (such as schools and hospitals) will be stretched to breaking point. Contestation for scarce resources, including healthcare and jobs, are some of the underlying causes of what is sometimes described as xenophobia.

So this is our dilemma: on the one hand we have an outcry over these new regulations that threaten to cripple our tourism industry and drive away investors. But on the other hand we face a seemingly uncontrolled influx of unskilled and illegal immigrants. This includes criminal syndicates, usually involved in poaching or drug dealing. How can we take effective action against those who circumvent the law, without punishing those who wish to be law-abiding?

Instead of chasing skilled people away, we should focus our resources on shoring up our porous borders. Due partly to gross inefficiency of our border police, we are facing a huge influx of illegal immigrants. Tightening our borders and empowering Home Affairs’ Immigration Inspectorate should be our first port of call.

Part of the problem is that we have no clear idea of how many non-citizens are living in South Africa. Home Affairs admitted last year that they didn’t know. In 2009, the South African Police Service said there could be as many as 6 million illegal immigrants in the country. We spend more than R90 million a year on sending illegal immigrants back to their countries. This money would be far better spent on functional “prevention” than rectification.

Minister Gigaba’s new regulations will fix none of the problems. They will just cost us jobs and income, and they will undo years of hard work in marketing South Africa as a tourist and business destination.

Given the importance the NDP places on growing tourism and attracting investment, it is staggering that we choose to do the opposite through these new regulations, without solving the immigration-related problems we do have.

Minister Gigaba speaks of how happy he is with the “robustness of debate” around the issue. He also admits that there are challenges and that the regulations aren’t perfect.

We all understand the euphemisms, Minister. So why not just admit that you need to listen to the criticism and return to the drawing board?

Helen Zille

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