Kenya and South Africa’s mutually destructive visa race

Kenya and South Africa’s mutually destructive visa race

It’s about to become a lot harder, and more expensive, for South Africans to travel to Kenya. Join the club, the Kenyans say – it’s already a mission for them to come here. But the petty, tit-for-tat regulations don’t seem to be in anyone’s interest: surely we should be encouraging travel, tourism and trade between two of Africa’s most important countries? By SIMON ALLISON.

For such a grand and pompous profession, diplomacy can at times be ridiculously petty – and the current visa spat between Kenya and South Africa is the perfect example.

Currently, South Africans can obtain a visa for Kenya on arrival, and free of charge. We can just book a ticket and rock up, and we will be welcomed with open arms. At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, there’s even a special, always shorter passport queue which South Africans can use – the Kenyans have set up a fast-track for citizens belonging to particular regional bodies.

As of September this year, this generous welcome will disappear, to be replaced with an expensive and onerous visa application system that will greatly complicate travel to and through Kenya. South Africans must now obtain a visa prior to arrival, and pay a fee of R750. Applicants must present a return air ticket (which, presumably, they must purchase with no guarantee that the visa will be issued); a letter of invitation from a host in Kenya; proof of funds in the form of a bank statement; and a letter from their South African employer or education institution.

Complicating things further is that would-be travellers to Kenya must appear in person at the High Commission in Pretoria, in order to submit biometric data. Sorry for you if you live in Cape Town, or Durban, or anywhere else in this huge country that is not within spitting distance of the capital.

The Kenyan High Commission in South Africa refused a request for a phone interview to discuss why they’ve implemented these supremely inconvenient changes, but did respond to several questions by email.

“In international relations and treaties, the principle of reciprocity states that favours, benefits, or penalties that are granted by one state to the citizens or legal entities of another, should be returned in kind. For example, reciprocity has been used in the reduction of tariffs, the grant of copyrights to foreign authors, the mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments, and the relaxation of travel restrictions and visa requirements. The same requirements apply to Kenyan Nationals travelling through OR Tambo International and the requirements have been in place for Kenyans since December 2013,” said Deputy High Commissioner Hellen Gichuhi.

In other words: tit for tat, an eye for an eye. Kenya did it because South Africa did it first.

So far, so childish. Especially because Kenya’s adherence to the principle of reciprocity is haphazard at best. For instance, Americans can pick up a visa on arrival in Kenya; Kenyan citizens, meanwhile, must go through the laborious American visa application process before they depart. The same applies for the European Union. Deputy Commissioner Gichuhi did not respond to a question from the Daily Maverick pointing out this inconsistency.

It is true, however, that South Africa recently implemented similarly stringent restrictions on Kenyan citizens. Kenyans have always needed a visa to enter South Africa, and always required one in advance – South Africa does not issue visas on arrival to anyone.

In December 2013, the situation changed slightly. To cope with the sheer volume of visa application in Nairobi, South Africa hired the services of VFS, a global visa-processing behemoth that operates 1,259 visa application centres for 45 client governments in 113 countries. VFS also works for South Africa in Nigeria and India.

VFS’s services don’t come cheap, and it’s the visa applicants who must pay. Kenyans applying for a South African visa must now pay a service charge to VSF. “It’s a service charge not a charge for the visa itself. We don’t raise any revenue from any visa issued to a Kenya,” said Jackie McKay, Deputy Director General for Immigration Services at Home Affairs – in other words, the man in charge of overseeing South Africa’s visa regime. “The Kenyans are now seeing it as South Africa charging them for a visa, which is completely wrong.”

The VFS website seemed to indicate that, in fact, it is McKay who has the wrong end of this particular stick. It outlines the fees that Kenyan applicants must pay at the VFS centre in Nairobi. There are two separate charges, a “visa fee” and a “service charge”. The website states quite clearly: “There is a service charge of KSHS 5,850 (inclusive of VAT) levied per application over and above the visa fees.”

In total, the charges for one applicant come to approximately R1,267 – a lot more than Kenya is asking South Africans to pay. No wonder the Kenyan government is unhappy, and slapping down a few visa regulations of its own.

Contacted about the discrepancy between his comments and the fees listed on the VFS website, McKay apologised for making a mistake. “I confused it with India,” he said. Needless to say, this doesn’t fill us with confidence that South Africa’s visa regime has been carefully considered. And when asked about the cost of a South African visa for Kenyans, McKay said, “We don’t think it’s exorbitant”.

In this context, it’s easy to see where Kenya is coming from – and it is possible to have a sneaking admiration for a country that is not prepared to put up with expensive, arbitrary restrictions imposed by South Africa on the movement of its citizens.

Both countries, however, should be questioning the wisdom of their actions – in terms of trade, tourism and even just the pan-African idealism, which they espouse at every opportunity. Especially because the visa restrictions even apply to transiting through the two countries. In other words, if South Africans want to travel on Kenyan Airways to London, or Kigali, or any other destination, they must have a visa to transit through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – even if they never leave the airport, or even the transit lounge. The same applies to Kenyans transiting through South Africa.

Truth is, though, that there’s not a lot of pan-African love between Kenya and South Africa at the moment. The two countries are at loggerheads over the contentious issue of the International Criminal Court, at which Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are currently on trial, charges with crimes against humanity committed during Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-2008. Kenya is lobbying hard for African countries to pull out of the ICC; South Africa, until recently at least, has been steadfast in its commitment to the international court.

Another complicating factor is the mysterious case of Samantha Lewthwaite, aka “The White Widow”. Lewthwaite is a British woman with links to Somali Islamist militant group Al Shabaab. Lewthwaite was allegedly involved somehow in last year’s Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, in which 72 people died. She had entered Kenya on a fraudulent South African passport, and Kenyan authorities were not impressed.

Whatever the real reasons behind the sudden escalation in visa tensions, it seems unlikely that either country will benefit from the new rules. For Africa to speed up its development, economists stress the merits of regional integration; political scientists stress the importance of cultural ties and mutual understanding; and politicians stress the significance of pan-Africanism. Making this harder and more expensive for citizens of two of the continent’s most populous and politically significant countries is not going to further any of these ideals. DM

Photo: Kenya’s and SA passports.


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