South Africa’s 'blocking’ visa quagmire drags down economy

Tens of thousands of foreign executives, engineers and other key workers have endured a year-long wait for South African visas, which business groups say costs investment and threatens the country’s status as a continental hub.

Already suffering from sluggish growth and high unemployment, the government has acknowledged that skills shortages are hampering growth.

A huge backlog in visa processing has compounded the problem.

Long visa waits are common in much of the world, but South Africa has some of the biggest bottlenecks, business groups say.

„We have various cases of people who have been waiting for more than a year,” said Pamina Bohrer, secretary general of the Italian-South African trade and industry.

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Apart from the „psychological stress” on families putting lives on hold, companies are suspending or canceling expansion plans in the country, he said.

Busisiwe Mousso, president of Business Leadership South Africa, which groups dozens of international companies including BP, Nestlé and Unilever, wrote in a newsletter in November.

„The fact that companies can’t fill positions means they can’t invest and expand.”

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Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told a parliamentary committee in September that 74,000 applications for all types of visas were awaiting processing due to severe staffing shortages.

The ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the latest figures.

However, concerns have increased since the coronavirus pandemic.

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In 2021, only 3,047 critical skills visas were processed, down 45 percent from 2019, according to official figures. Two-thirds were rejected.

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At a time when South Africa desperately needs skilled workers, experts say its testing is complex and disorganized.

Applicants must provide medical reports, criminal records and travel plans. Business groups complain about inconsistent decision-making.

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Some applications are processed in weeks, while others languish, they said. Sometimes applicants get permission but their spouses don’t.

Some are denied for minor issues like missing phone number.

South Africa needs engineers, IT specialists and managers, according to a panel appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to investigate visa delays.

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But it said it could take 48 weeks or more to get a work visa. Waiting times were four times shorter in Nigeria and Kenya.

A businessman who responded to an anonymous survey by the EU Chamber of Commerce in South Africa last year said the visa quagmire pushed him to choose Ghana for his new Africa market office.

„My company wants to expand further in South Africa…but uncertainty over visas has temporarily put this expansion on hold,” the businessman wrote.

In a report released last year, the group highlighted how each new skilled worker creates jobs for less-skilled workers. It said a one percent increase in skilled immigration would increase GDP by 1.2 percent.

The economy, already plagued by widespread power outages and problems with functioning ports and rail networks, is expected to grow by just 0.8 percent this year, the central bank said. Unemployment stands at 32 percent.

The panel recommended reforms including a points system to facilitate hiring and new visas for remote workers and start-ups, along with a trusted employer scheme.

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Officials said the proposed changes would be announced soon.

But with the 2024 elections looming, some believe the wait will be long.

Many South Africans, especially immigrants from neighboring countries, blame the high unemployment rate and increased crime.

The government’s security-oriented approach to immigration undermines official efforts to attract investment, said Jackie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank.

„We have the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Labor who are actively working to discourage foreigners from coming to South Africa,” said Cilliers, whose company is also fighting to secure visas for employees.

Mavuso Msimang, head of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, this month denounced „domestic corruption”, saying businesses „fail, downsize or decide not to invest anymore”.

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