Maverick Citizen


Internationalisation or xenophobia? Foreign staff and visa woes at SA universities

Internationalisation or xenophobia? Foreign staff and visa woes at SA universities
(Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

For both international staff and students at South African universities, visa processes have always been cumbersome and chaotic. But they are undoubtedly getting worse and the entire process has become a test of endurance.

Top South African universities such as Wits and UCT market themselves as centres of global excellence, besides being leading universities on the African continent. An international staff profile speaks to their ambitions around internationalisation.

Our universities have always had a fair share of staff from outside the country, especially from neighbouring African ones. They have also hired staff from further afield.

In the faculty of humanities where I work, the staff body is extremely diverse with colleagues from the US, Europe, Australia, Canada, Latin America and India.

Many were trained overseas (in African studies, broadly) and decided to make a home for themselves and their families in South Africa. Others, like myself, left jobs in the global north to work and live here.

But the requirements to internationalise must be carefully balanced with other, more pressing demands to transform. Certainly, since the student movements of 2015-2016, the pressure to demonstrate active steps toward transformation has increased.

Many measures are in place to secure a transformed university body, including hiring more local black staff. International staff — even if black or of colour — do not “count” toward equity goals.

It is increasingly hard to make the case to hire foreign over local staff. Indeed, it is only possible to do so when a hiring committee can absolutely show that no local candidate, in the entire applicant pool, fully meets the given job specifications.

Once foreign staff is hired, they need to obtain a visa to work. From that point on, they are mired in a series of seemingly Kafkaesque processes that could stretch up to the next decade of the life of a permanent staff member (and of their family).

Straightforward in theory, impossible in practice

Visa processes have always been cumbersome and chaotic in this country — for both staff and international students — but there is no question that they are systematically getting worse.

Both students and staff require, for instance, their overseas educational qualifications to be vetted by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). This is simply one of the several bits of documentation required to apply for a visa, and one that used to be fairly straightforward to obtain.

But, lately, it is anyone’s guess as to when SAQA will deliver on this paid service. Maybe months, maybe more. No visa application can be made until such time as this piece of certification is obtained.

The visa itself seems straightforward on the surface. VFS Global, which manages visa applications for Home Affairs, stipulates a set of forms and a checklist of supporting documentation — including a police clearance certificate, an evaluation by SAQA, a letter of appointment as well as a case made by human resources for the same.

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It is thus anyone’s guess as to why the process takes the length of time that it does — four to six months, if you are lucky — and has the kind of arbitrary outcomes that it does.

It has now become commonplace to be rejected once, if not twice, by Home Affairs. (Last year, VFS staff told me that 90% of critical skills visa applications had been rejected.)

The grounds for rejection tend to be entirely spurious — accusations that documents which were, in fact, provided are missing, or that enough of a case had not been made to demonstrate the “critical skills” in question.

Flouting its own rules, Home Affairs even rejects applicants whose skills have been vetted by national bodies such as SAQA, by prominent academic institutions such as the Human Sciences Research Council, or even by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Once a visa application is rejected, an applicant has 10 days to appeal against the decision. That decision could easily be a rejection, after which the applicant has one last chance to appeal.

Time consuming and expensive

This entire process is ultimately, then, a test of endurance. It is time-consuming and also not cheap. Not only do the visas themselves cost an exorbitant amount of money, but many are compelled to hire private immigration lawyers — for amounts like R20,000 — to appeal the system and secure a visa.

Not surprisingly, then, many opt out after the first or second rejection as they are unable to afford the associated costs and unending insecurity to themselves and to their families. Remember that while waiting for a visa process to conclude, you cannot legally work or earn in the country.

Visa troubles hardly end for the lucky few who manage to secure a critical skills visa (and it is entirely a matter of luck). The same visa needs to be renewed after five years, until such time as an applicant qualifies to apply for permanent residency in South Africa.

In the meantime, much transpires — rejection of visas for family members, including of minor children; rejection of the renewal of the same visa; disappeared or stalled applications, and so on and so forth.

Universities provide minimal forms of institutional support or pay to cover these processes. Staff often find they are left entirely to their own devices, reliant on information-sharing with other foreign staff.

Local staff tend to be ignorant or unsympathetic to what is transpiring. Vice-chancellors don’t see these as issues worth championing in the public sphere, notwithstanding their loud commitments to internationalisation.

Right to work

It goes without saying that the current political climate of xenophobia is feeding into this culture of apathy. Outside of university walls, there is growing clamour for barring foreigners.

Although the worst of this xenophobia is directed at precarious — and not highly skilled — workers, it also most affects skilled migrants who are black and African, and who face greater — and more humiliating — forms of red tape.

Xenophobia also fuels falsehoods, with many South Africans — and foreigners — labouring under the illusion that it is easy to secure the right to work in this country. It is not. And increasingly, the public thinks it should not be.

The question that universities must answer is how they propose to meet their stated ambitions of internationalisation. Surely, only by tackling the xenophobia that has taken hold of the country, from the top of the political class to the streets, no matter who its target is. DM/MC

Srila Roy is professor of sociology at Wits University.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Christopher John Wiseman says:

    It is not only visa applicants who have difficulty at Home Affairs. When applying for documents, citizens are treated differently dependant on how citizenship was achieved i.e. by birth, naturalization or ancestry. Persons born in SA can register online to apply for documents via selected banks. Other citizens have to personally attend at Home Affairs offices and also cannot apply for the card ID. I
    understand different processes to obtain citizenship but once a citizen why should a person be treated differently?

  • virginia crawford says:

    And yet the Guptas got residence? And all manner of unskilled persons are here and employed? How?

  • Gillian Dusterwald says:

    The visa system worldwide is becoming more complex and costly. It seems it is time for a complete verhaul Personally, I would be happy to be microchipped!

  • Heinz Eckart Klingelhöfer says:

    I entered the country on critical skills in 2009 (it needed 10 months), the permanent residence was awarded in 2013 (otherwise I would have left), also to my family. However, while I got my ID officially in 2015 (first time in hand was only in 2018), my wife should have got it in 2015 as well (we have at least the awarded number), but needed to re-apply in 2019 for spurious reasons (not to call it incompetence) – and still does not have it in hands.

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