South Africa

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Ramaphosa’s tour: South Africa to lift visa restrictions for Ghana, Kenya in bid to boost trade

President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives in Abidjan for a state visit to Côte d'Ivoire on 2 December 2021. (Photo: GCIS)

Tricky visa rules have come up frequently during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s West Africa tour, along with gripes about South Africa’s many regulations making it difficult to do business here, while the South African delegation aired its own displeasure over ‘arbitrary tax bills’ and illegal immigrants.

Visa restrictions for Ghanaian and Kenyan travellers to South Africa are set to be lifted as part of efforts to boost trade and business within Africa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is on a tour to four West African countries, told journalists in Accra on Sunday, at the conclusion of his visit to Ghana, that the pan-African vision of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, “is for me what really informed the spirit in which the discussions took place here”.

International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, who is part of the large travelling delegation of ministers and officials, has confirmed that Kenyans will soon be able to travel to South Africa without having to go through a complicated visa process. The two countries set up a committee at presidential level last month to deal with difficulties related to visas following a state visit to South Africa by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. 

Home Affairs officials said the same was true for Ghana, where Ramaphosa arrived for a state visit over the weekend. There has, however, not been any definite agreement on how the lifting of visa restrictions will be implemented, such as whether it would be by means of e-visas, visas on arrival or a complete waiver. 

“We are just about to finalise visa-free access to Kenyans,” Pandor told Daily Maverick during an interview in Accra, on the sidelines of Ramaphosa’s visit. “We have now signed agreements on returning illegal entrants, so now we are moving towards granting an e-visa which we have piloted in India and which is working quite well.”

She said agreements had to be reached with Kenya about the returns because people come from abroad, for example from Pakistan, travelling through Dubai, then Kenya, and then by land to South Africa. 

“We have been saying to Kenya, ‘you have a responsibility to stop people’, because if you’re an asylum seeker, the first country they come to should be the one they remain in,” she said. “They shouldn’t be crossing borders. There’s something funny when that happens. We have agreed now that we can send [people] back if there is clear proof that they have been through Kenya.”

To enter Kenya, South Africans currently receive visas on arrival.

A complicated business

Scrapping visas is one aspect of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, which came into effect at the beginning of 2021 but is still a work in progress in many respects.

The two biggest economies on the continent, South Africa and Nigeria, have not yet signed the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, which seeks to establish a visa-free zone within the AfCFTA countries. 

Pandor said the visa issue has come up frequently, including during Ramaphosa’s West Africa tour. He and his delegation, together with business delegations from South Africa, also visited Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire last week.

“The big issue [that arises in our deliberations] is migration – visas – just [for business people] being able to stay long enough to get your business off the ground, to get licences and so on,” she said.

There are also complaints from business people from the rest of Africa that South Africa’s system is over-legislated. “There are too many regulations to them that make it very difficult [to do business in South Africa].” 

Obtaining licences, getting money out of South Africa, and doing foreign currency transactions also make it difficult to do business here. 

Countries with executive presidents also find it hard to understand why South Africa takes long to sign on to agreements or make decisions which have to be referred to Parliament first.

From South Africa’s side there were complaints that its business people have come up against a range of barriers. “For example, just as we have our affirmative action or black economic empowerment, they too have their localisation requirements, and sometimes our companies find it difficult to respond to those,” Pandor said.

There are also issues with tax administration systems that are implemented without having a statutory instrument behind them. “Our companies complain about arbitrary tax bills they receive that are huge at times, and that impact on them, because some of them are shareholder companies,” she said. “I think the distinction between private and public businesses is sometimes not as sharp in some of the countries as it is in ours.” 

Many companies are listed on the stock exchange and are governed by a board of directors and a chief executive, which means the government cannot tell them how to respond. 

“We had instances when CEOs of certain companies have come to my office because their staff had been arrested because they didn’t pay a VAT bill or something, but they had paid it and one office didn’t inform the other,” she said. “It’s quite scary stuff.”

Ramaphosa was applauded on Sunday when he told the Ghana-South Africa business forum at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City that “Africa has moved away from too much political involvement, where politicians put their fingers in project awards and execution and they put their dirty fingers in all tenders”.

He said the continent needed to be depoliticised for it to be successful. “We should rely on our professionals, we should rely on financing those projects, executing those projects, standardising the methods of executing those projects, and there should not be arbitrariness where you sometimes hear that because a CEO of one company or another had not complied with a little regulation [he/she] is arrested and put in prison for infractions like that. We need to standardising the way we work.”

Ramaphosa said he discussed this with Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, and they agreed that a way should be found “of evolving a good value system at a business level as well, which can be adhered to throughout our continent”. 

Ramaphosa also spoke about correcting trade imbalances, which are often in favour of South Africa, but Akufo-Addo said at the same forum that the trade imbalance was not as urgent as increasing intra-African trade, which currently stands at only 16% of the continent’s combined GDP, compared with about 70% for Europe. 

“We obviously have to pay attention to the issues of trade imbalances between our two countries,” he said, “but for me the most important is that the trade should go on. In the end the imbalances will correct themselves if it were wrong, but the bottom thing is the willingness to find out from each other where we can profit, because it is important that we should profit.”

He said it’s the “level of solidarity and trust between us which will help us succeed in what we are doing”.

Akufo-Addo was recently named African of the Year by Forbes because he “repositioned the country in the global marketplace as one reliant on its own resources and strength”.  

In 2020, trade volumes between the two countries reached just more than R14-billion, with South African exports to Ghana dominated by industrial products, while South African imports largely comprise minerals and unfinished products. 

South African investors continue to show confidence in the enabling business environment of Ghana – South African companies invested $242-million in Ghana in 2020 – and Ramaphosa praised the “investor-friendly environment created by the government”.

There are more than 200 South African companies registered in Ghana, employing nearly 20,000 Ghanaians and about 500 expats. DM

Carien du Plessis is part of a group of nine media representatives from South Africa who are travelling with President Cyril Ramaphosa to report on his visit.

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