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SA’s shambolic visa regime is hampering economic growth and job creation

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Mireille Wenger is the MEC for Finance and Economic Development in the Western Cape.

To facilitate foreign investment, companies need to access South Africa easily. But the huge inefficiencies relating to almost every category of visas remain a significant deterrent to investment, costing jobs and economic growth.

In every interaction I have with business, big and small, domestic and international, the broken visa regime in South Africa is a stand-out factor holding back their investment, growth and ability to create jobs.

The huge inefficiencies relating to almost every category of visas, including remote working, critical skills, spousal, e-visas, investment, and retirement visas remain a significant deterrent to investment and expansion of existing businesses, costing jobs and economic growth right at a time when we cannot afford to lose one rand or job.

The national Department of Home Affairs is not oblivious to this, and two seemingly positive announcements have recently been made towards a remedy. Last week, a revised Critical Skills List (updated to include only veterinarians and veterinary nurses) was gazetted for comment, and this week a pilot scheme to fast-track visa applications for senior executives, technical personnel, corporate employees, and investors was announced.

While these may seem like laudable steps in the right direction, if you scratch the surface, the reality is that we’re merely treading water and going nowhere very, very slowly on the road to unlocking economic growth and job creation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s visa regime keeps out badly needed skilled workers

In early September, the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Labour Market Intelligence Unit released a survey to identify occupations in high demand, occupational shortages, and skills gaps in South Africa, and at a provincial level. The survey closed on 13 September 2023, meaning that the vital insights are very unlikely to have been incorporated into the most recent critical skills list.

To facilitate foreign investment, companies need to access South Africa easily. Individuals who apply for critical skills visas typically help develop new sectors or expand existing ones, contribute to increasing the complexity of the economy by bringing in skills that are not currently available, and help new industries through skills development in South Africa.

This is why efficient processing of critical skills visas is key for economic growth and job creation. It’s also why the pilot scheme to fast-track senior and corporate employees won’t get us there without a jolting injection of practical sense.

SMME growth and critical skills

Yes, we need interventions at this level, but we can’t only be looking at large corporates and those that employ hundreds of South Africans already. We need to urgently enable the engines of our economic growth — small, medium and micro enterprises and start-ups in key growth-enabling sectors like manufacturing, business-process outsourcing (BPO) and agriculture, to source key skills and play their part in driving growth, hope and jobs across the country.

However, it cannot end there. Remote working and spousal visas, linked to critical skills, are also vital. It seems obvious, but the connections are not being drawn where they should be. People with critical skills will and do think twice about bringing their expertise to South Africa if their families aren’t able to join them with certainty.

This is exactly why the director of the Stellenbosch Business School, Professor Mark Smith, recently left South Africa and took his skills with him — South Africa’s severely compromised and inefficient visa regime meant that his family had no certainty about when or whether they would ever be able to join him in South Africa.

Investors stay out?

It’s easy to see the message that this bungling and dysfunction sends to the international investment and global corporate community: South Africa is effectively closed for business.

Even those who don’t want or need to work anymore aren’t being made welcome. In the case of retirement visas, a reply to a recent parliamentary question in the National Assembly revealed that in the last three years, South Africa has lost 499 retirement visa opportunities, resulting in a potential loss of approximately R18.5-million per month to the economy.

The 12-month processing time for retirement visa applications acts as another deterrent for applicants. These highly mobile global citizens quickly explore alternative options in competing countries, and they purchase homes and invest their forex elsewhere. The economic benefits of “swallows” are well known and often offer great support to smaller and rural towns.

Poor, indifferent service

The e-visa system for tourists, introduced to alleviate backlogs for visitors, is as shambolic. At the end of last year, Home Affairs confirmed that the reason for rejecting 58% of the 6,329 e-visa applications it received was because they simply didn’t get to the applications in time.

In the Western Cape, we are preparing for what promises to be a bumper summer tourism season, with 215 international flights arriving at Cape Town International Airport each week from January 2024.

Many of these visitors will want to stay longer, both here and across South Africa. Our visa regime should make this as easy as possible so that our economy and people can benefit from the economic boost and jobs that would come from the increased spend and flexibility in how these visitors spend their time and forex.

In 2022, our Western Cape provincial Department of Economic Development and Tourism conducted a survey on businesses’ challenges with the South African visa system. That survey, across technology, tourism, finance and business, manufacturing, agriculture/agri-processing and BPO, revealed that 78% of respondents rated South Africa’s immigration application system as very poor compared to other countries in which they operated.

And 26% of those businesses moved their operations overseas, costing countless jobs in South Africa because of the serious challenges they faced with the national visa system.

An honest confrontation of where we are as a country is needed. We have a clear and easy opportunity to enable economic growth and job creation by making it as easy as possible for global citizens who wish to work, invest, retire, share their skills, and visit this wonderful county, to do so.

But we have run out of road and are heading straight towards a fiscal cliff. It is time that we take the obvious course-correcting measures that will help us avoid catastrophe, setting us on a road to economic prosperity for all. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thanks Mireille for drawing attention to this problem, my wife and I moved 7 years ago to South Africa and in general the people that we speak about this problem can’t believe how slow, complicated and often unfair VFS is treating people that like to either invest or retire in this country. If you hear then your president saying that companies should look at South Africa for investment I think how?
    With no electricity, no water, not enough educated labour and not even a visa to stay?

    • Rusi Kathoke says:

      I am subject to the retirement visa regime and (even after 14 years of continuous residence and renewals) have been waiting over 4 years for a permanent residence permit. I don’t think VFS is the problem. They process applications timeously, it is the adjudication process at the Department of Home Affairs that is slow and (unnecessarily) complicated.

    • Ben Harper says:

      VFS are not the problem, they are just the official facilitator of the visa process, the visas still have to go through and be issued by Home Affairs

      • Guntram Buchhold says:

        I agree VFS is not the problem it is home affairs.I now went the path to sue home affairs, the lawyer said he has over 1.000 cases! then home affairs just before it goes to court issues the via to prevent having to pay the costs ( R 16.000)

      • Guntram Buchhold says:

        I agree VFS is not the problem it is home affairs.I now went the path to sue home affairs, the lawyer said he has over 1.000 cases! then home affairs just before it goes to court issues the via to prevent having to pay the costs ( R 16.000)

  • My husband and I waited 9 months to have our temporary retirement visa application ‘declined’ unfairly (as we we comply with the financial requirements on both counts – both ‘Pension’ and ‘net worth’ – as stipulated). We Appealed within the 10 days as required and we have been waiting over 8 months now and have heard nothing!
    We own a house and a car in Mpumalanga, we got married at our house in 2021 and we want to spend our hard earned British pounds (and Pension) in South Africa and work charitable with the Park Rangers and animal welfare but we have been made unwelcome. Please can someone make some changes – after all – the South African economy needs retirees like us.

  • Ju Welsh says:

    My husband is South African. We have been married for 53 years. We have a house in Cape Town. I was approved for a permanent relatives visa in 2014 at the consulate in Toronto Canada. I’ve been waiting ever since for my visa. I can only be in this country for 3 months a visit. My permanent visa will never happen. Shockingly sad.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Easy to sum all this up – anc! Which means: incompetence, massive corrupt, useless, self-serving, beyond stupid, criminal, predatory, treasonous, rapacious, hypocritical etc etc. One could carry on and on to aptly describe this mob of misfits and idiots. Who in their right mind would ever want to invest and open a business here? Besides dealing with the vile anc, one then has to contend with over-the-top BEE rules that prevent and strangle free enterprise, cadre deployment of the most stupid, socialist and centrist labour laws that hark back to the failed and miserable communist era, crime on steroids, inconsistent electricity etc. But of course Cyril the useless and spineless and his moronic party/government, can’t connect the dots and is too dimwitted and arrogant to realize that the most important precondition is for government to create the right environment for investment and jobs to flow. Roadshows, mining indabas etc. are meaningless and just a platform for hot air and vitriol – sort out the basics.

  • Thank you for drawing attention to this. It is such a road block for growth. Currently affecting friends who are in the country “waiting” for their visa and employing many.

  • William Stucke says:

    Unfortunately, South Africa’s xenophobic citizens and government assume that every ‘foreigner’ employed in RSA is automatically taking a job away from a local. Couple that attitude to 3+ decades of cadre deployment, corruption and a lack of accountability, and we have a seriously dysfunctional “civil service”.

    The article points to part of a potential solution. The e-visa system should be constructed in such a way that approval of visa applications should take no more than a few minutes each. Even if each one took as much as 15 minutes, it would require fewer than 2 people to process all 13,887 applications received in the past year. But to address the issue of tourism, the existing very short list of eligible countries (Cameroon, China, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda) needs to be considerably expanded.

  • Robert de Rooy says:

    With a bit of effort, the government can unlock so many opportunities for the country. But I am not holding my breath that this government even cares to do something because there is nothing in it for them.

  • Richard Baker says:

    Hello-and wide of the retirement aspect-how tragic that SA has created conditions where the large demographic of 20’s/30’s/early 40’s professionals (and their young families) are not made to feel welcome or safe to remain in the land of their birth with future prospects and contribute to nation building as tax-paying and constructive members of society. Far more effective and permanent than importing talents from elsewhere. Instead, they are leaving in droves and, by all accounts, doing very well in their new countries with reputations as hard-working, polite, law-abiding and resilient. What short-sighted people we are saddled with as a so-called “government”!

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