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A home affairs office in Alberton, south of Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell
A home affairs office in Alberton, south of Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell

Despite recent announcements that the department of home affairs has plans in place to correct its poor performance, fears remain that it is on the same slippery slope as many other SA government functions.

The general decline in the public sector’s ability to actually deliver public services is hitting citizens, investors, tourists, and the economy as a whole. Worse, a failure of key departments such as home affairs — along with national utilities and other services — signals to the world that SA is on track to become a failed state.

The country is already performing worse year on year in the international Fund for Peace Fragile State Index, and and could become a failed state in just a few years, economist and University of Johannesburg professor Daniel Meyer warned recently.

After widespread criticism the department recently announced plans to deploy more staff and focus on training, with a reprieve for foreign visa applicants whose renewals and applications had not been processed yet. However, the department has spent so much time developing plans that the immense backlog that developed during the pandemic has now grown to more than 75,000.

Just 48 hours before a previous extension was set to expire, home affairs announced last week that the holders of long-term visas and those awaiting the outcomes of their applications now have an extension until December 31. The department appears optimistic that it can process 75,000 visa and permit applications in eight months when it has a backlog dating back to 2016, and new applications are being filed all the while.

Serious impediment

Earlier this week Business Leadership SA (BLSA) added its voice to the debate, with CEO Busisiwe Mavuso pointing out that the last-minute reprieve was of little use to thousands more people around the world who have been waiting for visa applications to be processed. She described the visa administration problems as a serious impediment to SA’s economy.  

BLSA was far from the only critic. Wits University sociology professor Srila Roy noted recently that top SA universities market themselves as centres of global excellence, but that cumbersome visa processes are driving top international scholars away. She said visa processes, which had always been “cumbersome and chaotic”, were getting worse, making the entire process “a test of endurance”.

Scarce skills required in SA are becoming harder to attract and retain — largely because of the hurdles and delays that foreign specialists face in securing visas and work permits. The JCSE-IITPSA 2022 Skills Survey found that the number of employers recruiting specialised IT skills abroad has risen to 50% from 38% the year before. CareerJunction said skills shortages were reported across specialisations such as IT, finance, engineering, and medical and healthcare, while other reports said it had become virtually impossible to recruit specialist nurses overseas. 

These skills are critical for economic growth and service delivery; indeed, it has been suggested that the global talent shortage could lead to a collective $8.5-trillion loss in potential annual revenue in 2030. Despite SA having a high rate of unemployment, it would be short-sighted to exclude specialist foreign skills in the hope that the country will find sufficient skilled resources locally to fill the gaps in the short term.

Our practice has repeatedly warned that visa delays and uncertainty are having serious social and economic effects. Restricting foreign access to SA does more harm than just limiting the ability of local businesses to function and grow: it also curbs tourism, bilateral trade, and foreign direct investment. Failing to address factors such as corruption, failing infrastructure and excessive bureaucracy means SA is now also falling behind other African countries as a preferred investment destination. 

Trauma and stress   

On a smaller scale, but traumatic and life-altering for the individuals concerned, are the effects of delays and uncertainty on thousands of people and their families. One applicant who has been waiting for an outcome since 2018 notes that they have suffered indescribable stress, emotional duress and even an unpleasant incident at UK border control due to the situation. They said: “I have resided in SA for nearly 13 years, filed my taxes, done whatever has been asked from me, when is my turn?”

When challenged on these concerns, home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi has proven dismissive, and even claimed recently that immigration attorneys were critical because the visa delays “hit them in their pockets”. Yet immigration lawyers make most of their money from assisting clients when home affairs fails to do its job. If visa processes were transparent and efficient our clients would be able to handle them themselves and not have to pay for assistance.

The minister’s summary dismissal of valid concerns is yet another worrying indication that home affairs could be failing, and that those paid to manage it are focusing their efforts on defending their performance instead of saving this sinking ship.

My practice, along with my fellow immigration law practitioners, leading business organisations and other stakeholders, have long tempered our concern and criticism with offers of help. Our goals are aligned with the department’s mandate, which is to make SA an attractive and welcoming destination for foreign investors, skills and tourists, and so support economic growth for our country.

Should the minister and the broader department avail themselves of the resources and support they have at their disposal they might be better positioned to address the backlogs, inconsistencies and challenges they face. Instead of taking a defensive stance, the department could reach out to the reliable immigration service providers, appoint us to the immigration advisory board, and ask for our opinion and advice on improving processes.

The private sector has the necessary expertise and resources to assist and is ready and willing to help improve the situation.

De Saude Darbandi is immigration & citizenship law specialist at DSD Immigration Attorneys.

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