Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has made a public commitment that South Africa’s systems for facilitating the entry of foreign skills into the country will be professionalised and made more convenient in the coming months, acknowledging ongoing frustration over visa and work-permit delays, as well as an uneven application of the new regulations by foreign missions.

Speaking in Johannesburg to immigration practitioners from multinationals and domestic firms representing sectors as diverse as mining, energy and automotive, through to food and beverages and information technology, Gigaba said the department was doing much soul searching on ways to improve the quality of its service. Earlier he had listened to a litany of complaints that included main applicants receiving permission to work in South Africa only for their families to be rejected; certain foreign missions demanding documentation that was not stipulated in the regulations; a rise in the number of appeals as a result of applications being rejected by the department’s service provider, VFS Global; appointment slots being unavailable at certain VFS Global offices in the main centres, owing to block bookings being made by unscrupulous operators that then sold these slots on; backlogs in obtaining police-clearance and Department of Labour certificates; requirements that expatriates return to their countries of origin in order to renew visas and permits; and serious delays in receiving permits even for individuals designated to work on so-called strategic projects, such as those being undertaken by Eskom.

Gigaba said that “practical steps” were being taken to improve the experience for corporate applicants, highlighting, for instance, the creation of a new one-stop business-immigration hub at the Gauteng Investment Centre, in Sandton, as well as the recent decision to offer multiple-entry visas to businesspeople from Brazil, Russia, India and China – a service that would be extended to other countries over time. He argued, too, that many of the current problems often had less to do with the actual legislation and regulations than with the department’s administrative capacity and said it would be seeking support from the private sector to improve its operational capacity. In addition, the department was planning an intensive training programme in the coming months with all foreign missions and embassies to ensure a more even application of the rules. However, he was also quick to stress that Home Affairs would continue to give an equal weighting to its dual mandate of safeguarding the security of the country and of promoting economic development. “The difficulty for us is to balance conflicting demands and arguments. The securocrats say to us: ‘you guys are lenient, you are liberal, be tough’. The economists, on the other hand, are accusing us of being too rigid and inflexible.”

He said Home Affairs would seek to be as accommodative of business as possible and was intervening to change the “myopic” mindset of officials who viewed immigrants as a nuisance, while failing to understand their true value to the economy. “We want convenience as a philosophy – convenience for clients, not for ourselves,” Gigaba stressed, adding that he had recently set up a panel to review the way visas were processed and to make recommendations on how the system could be improved. However, it would not act in a way that could undermine security, stressing that safety and security was a prerequisite for economic growth and business activity, including a thriving tourism sector.

Terence Creamer, polity.org.za

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