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

While it has taken too long to get here, home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi deserves some credit for finally doing away with the costly requirement that minors travelling to SA should carry additional documents such as unabridged certificates.

Motsoaledi’s decision over the weekend means that foreign minors will no longer need unabridged birth certificates or consent letters as long as they are travelling with their parents, removing a huge disincentive for travelling to SA. 

From the start, the regulations, which were introduced in 2015, came under attack for hobbling the tourism industry, one of the bright spots in an otherwise struggling economy. Ostensibly to help fight child trafficking, they required that all passengers under the age of 18 would have to carry unabridged birth certificates. 

While it was never made clear how prevalent the trafficking of minors through SA ports was or why the country needed to have the most unwieldy regulations in the world, the effect on the industry was immediate — and negative. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that the sector contributed about 9.4%, or R413bn, to GDP in 2017, employing about 1.5-million people.

Immediately, horror stories of families being prevented from boarding planes to SA airports started doing the rounds, while airlines reported a drop in bookings. In September 2015, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported a 21% annual drop in air revenue for tickets purchased for travel to SA.

The biggest drop was in travel from Asia, a key area of growth that’s crucial for our tourism and for reducing dependence on the mature markets of Western Europe and North America.

As we know from our own experience, in many emerging markets obtaining identity documents isn’t always a simple process. While there is no empirical data to this effect, it’s not hard to imagine that for many travellers from geographically diverse countries such as China and India, the process would have meant travelling to SA was simply not worth the effort.

In welcoming the change in policy, the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) noted that travel and tourism-related industries “lost hundreds of millions of rands over the past five years as a direct result of the restrictions and how they were implemented”, adding that trade was lost “to places that were easier to visit”.

The government has itself long recognised the constraints to tourism as a result of the regulations. It was in fact one of the main things President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted when he took office early in 2018. Unfortunately, the initial attempt to sort this out was a fudge that created even more confusion.

Former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba tried to find a middle ground where minors travelling to SA would only need to show full documentation “by exception” or in high-risk situations. The problem was that these “high-risk” exceptions were not clear and it would make no sense for anyone travelling to simply not be carrying the documents, just in case they were deemed by an immigration official to be “high risk”.  

Motsoaledi’s decision is also important in another way in that it builds momentum at a time when the country and the business community are crying out for speedy reforms to get the economy going. Tourism features highly in the policy paper that was released by the National Treasury and recommended major microeconomic reforms. Hopefully this step will set an example for other departments.

One criticism is that Motsoaledi could have gone further and extended the waiver to SA children as well. That could have given a boost to tourism within the continent as locals often find it quite easy to visit neighbouring countries with their children.

In addition, of the millions of South Africans who have made homes in countries across the world, a significant portion would still travel home on SA passports. They are also an important tourism market for SA.