Defend Truth


Breaking visa logjam is critical if SA wants to compete for global talent


Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. It is part of the University of Reading UK, originally an extension college of Oxford University, renowned for its leadership in climate science, finance, property management and executive education, and one of the most international universities in Britain. Henley is committed to transformation and holds a Level 2 B-BBEE ranking. If you would like to find out how you could unlock your future with Henley Africa, go to

We all know that local is lekker, but an influx of international talent and expertise does not have to come at the expense of locals, it can boost it. But our dysfunctional visa regime stands in the way.

This year marks the 30th anniversary that every South African can — to paraphrase Sol Plaatje — vote as a citizen, no longer a pariah in the land of their birth. While this is a cause for celebration, continued hardship for many across the country must temper this.

The truth is there is still a long way to travel on Nelson Mandela’s much-vaunted long walk to freedom because political freedom has not brought economic freedom for all.

It is a sobering thought that economies that were smaller than South Africa’s in 1994 have surpassed ours in the last three decades. Meanwhile, no progress on poverty and inequality reduction has been made since 2011.

Having inherited the keys to the political kingdom, we are now confronted with a stagnating economy, world-champion unemployment rates, and creaking debt-ridden and inefficient state-owned enterprises crippled by poor maintenance and a lack of infrastructure investment.

We all know the problems with Eskom, but there are other crises undermining our economy, not least of which is the decline of the rail network and our ports and harbours which are vital for keeping the arteries of commerce pumping. South Africa’s manufacturing sector is also in reverse, with the economy inexorably de-industrialising.

Many of these issues are being fuelled by an exodus of skilled professionals. According to the UN, nearly one million South Africans had settled abroad by the end of 2020, with a significant uptick in emigration since 2015. Three times as many skilled South Africans left the country between 2015 and 2020 than in the previous five years in pursuit of a better quality of life, earning potential, personal safety, and career growth.

This means we have a scarcity of skills from IT to medicine, which undermines businesses’ ability to innovate and grow. It also threatens the national tax base, further reducing investment in infrastructure and service delivery and incentivising emigration.

Anyone can see where this is going.

It could seem hopeless, and if nothing is done, it could very well be, but there are solutions. In the longer term, we must redouble our efforts to fix the broken education system. For instance, just increasing the number of matriculants who get a degree of some sort could transform the economy.

Skills transfer and development

Currently, South Africa has one of the largest underdeveloped talent pools in the world, with just 4% of those who start school going on to get a university degree (versus around 50% in a more developed context). Another year of schooling raises productivity and earnings by 10% a year, according to a World Bank study, while the Development Bank of South Africa reports that households with educated people stand a better chance of lifting themselves out of poverty.

But we need short-term solutions, too. One such quick fix is to address skills transfer by attracting people who have the skills we need to come to this country. An influx of highly skilled and motivated international talent could boost businesses, create jobs, and provide a much-needed injection to government tax revenues, helping to get the economy moving again.

Plenty of people would like to come to our beautiful country: senior managers, IT specialists, technicians, and engineers, but very few of them can get visas to live here.

Critical visa delays and rejections

According to a study conducted by the SA Presidency, a staggering 52% of all visa applications between 2014 and 2021 were rejected. Those who do manage to get the visas have had to navigate a phalanx of hurdles and face interminable delays of up to 48 weeks in limbo. That is one month short of a year, which is catastrophic for foreign companies that have invested in this country and want to expand.

Sometimes the scarce skills candidate gets a visa, but their partner or their children still have to wait through an interminable process.

And it’s not just big foreign multinationals waging war with officialdom and red tape, smaller companies are too, while South Africa’s economic growth prospects languish. Hardly surprisingly, many firms that have established offices here, especially regional head offices, are considering relocating to other African countries where the daily challenges aren’t so insurmountable.

Hanlon’s Razor famously exhorts us not to ascribe problems to malice when they could adequately be described by stupidity. It’s very seductive to pin the tail of incompetence on the Department of Home Affairs, a modern-day Kafkaesque hell of interminable queues and a capricious mainframe computer system that crashes more often than Eskom sheds.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Take a hike: Home Affairs’ memo on visas is chasing away our seasonal expats or ‘swallows’

Indeed, the minister of Home Affairs has admitted his department is understaffed and that the IT system is inefficient and complex. Experts attribute the ongoing dysfunction to the corruption and mismanagement of the decade of State Capture during President Jacob Zuma’s era, but is that all there is to it?

Anyone who has got an ID card or a passport recently — and that is by going to an actual Department of Homes Affairs branch rather than one of the banks that offer this service — knows that the department actually can work effectively and efficiently and use digital equipment very capably to capture, create and then distribute high-tech biometric identity documents that meet the highest international standards.

In many cases, these days, you can actually book an appointment beforehand, make the application and then be notified when to pick up your document within two weeks.

So, what does that leave us with? An unwillingness on the part of officials to issue visas? The question is, why? Is this political, cultural, or xenophobic? Is there a fear that letting foreigners into the country will take away local jobs?

Need for foreign skills

We all know that local is lekker, but an influx of the international does not have to come at the expense of the local, it can boost it. We can build skills faster and much more effectively if we get the right people to come in to help kickstart our economy, teach new skills, and create more opportunities for our 61% of unemployed young people.

It has been demonstrated the world over that importing foreign skills improves local job markets immensely. This is one of the reasons why countries like New Zealand are easing visa rules to attract skilled talent to their shores, and countries like the UK, Canada, and Germany are working hard to attract people from beyond their borders to come and live and work in their countries.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that a good number of the people they are enticing are skilled South Africans.

So, what is stopping us from fighting back and mounting a talent attraction drive of our own? The presidency has identified this skills shortage as the second biggest impediment to economic growth after power outages, so why is nothing being done? Could there be a criminal intent behind the logjam, that bribes must be paid to get the documents people desperately need? Or is it more sinister? Is there a cabal intent on letting the country fail so they can rob the grave?

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes used to say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. We have to ask these questions to get the answers to be able to fashion sustainable solutions that can address the issue.

The South Africa we aspire to needs an injection of skills, that is not contested. And the situation will only get more dire as the pace of technological change outstrips even more developed countries’ ability to keep up with skills development.

Being able to grant skilled immigrant visas quickly and correctly, as part of a broader strategy to address skills shortages, will soon be a prerequisite for any country hoping to build a diverse and thriving economy in the decades ahead.

I, for one, don’t accept that South Africa has to tread the path to ruin. We need to act now to make sure that the country is a winner and not a loser in the cutthroat market for global talent so that we can continue the walk towards real freedom. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    “Plenty of people would like to come to our beautiful country: senior managers, IT specialists, technicians, and engineers, but very few of them can get visas to live here.”

    “Sometimes the scarce skills candidate gets a visa, but their partner or their children still have to wait through an interminable process.”

    My son born and bred and educated (another engineer) in South Africa is about to go back to Netherlands with his Dutch wife and newly born child.
    This rubbish with Home Affairs is just too much to deal with. Days in queues (with baby, has to be there!)

  • Christopher Campbell says:

    You hit every nail on the head with this article, unfortunately you are preaching to the converted.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    My wife and I have been using VFS to renew our retired person permits for some years. We went to VFS Cape Town on October 3rd last year and were notified three days later by VFS that our applications had been processed and forwarded to DHA in Pretoria. Now, four and a half months later, we are still waiting for the permits to be returned to VFS Cape Town.

    • Martin Smith says:

      I’ve been waiting nearly two years already, travelling in and out on my receipt. I have every expectation that the four years will pass without my application ever being processed.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted