SA Tourist Visa Problems

Despite what Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi thinks he told the nation about visa renewals for tourists, the message does not appear to have sunk in with visitors – or border officials.

At least one tourist has already been banned from South Africa despite applying for a visa renewal and presenting the receipt to Border Management Authority (BMA) officials. 

Others don’t know whether to leave the country before their visas expire, saying they can’t rely on media reports quoting Motsoaledi as saying their receipts for visa renewals will fend off deportation.

On 18 February, Daily Maverick reported that tourists wanting to extend their stay in South Africa beyond 90 days still had time to apply for a visa extension. This was after Motsoaledi told Parliament that those with a receipt proving their application was being processed would not be declared undesirable.

The Home Affairs minister’s comments came after almost three weeks of silence following a Daily Maverick report that a leaked departmental directive had instructed BMA officials that tourists who hadn’t received their visa renewals by 23 February had to leave South Africa by the end of this month or risk being declared “undesirable”.

The directive, published on 21 December 2023, told officials that tourists in the country on short-term visas for 90 days, up to and including 30 November 2023, who had applied for a visa renewal but had not yet received an outcome by 23 February 2024, had to leave South Africa by 29 February to avoid being declared undesirable.

‘Strict instructions’

The BMA was said to be under strict instructions to enforce the directive, which was of particular concern to “swallows” or sun-chasers, who visit countries like South Africa during the Northern Hemisphere winter to enjoy endless summers. Here, they are accustomed to maximising their stays by extending their visas for a further 90 days.

South Africa grants short-term visas on arrival to several countries and territories, including Canada and the European Union. During this time, visitors can apply for an extension, but the department lacks the ability to process applications within a reasonable time.

Motsoaledi said during the debate on the State of the Nation Address: “We are being accused of chasing tourists out of South Africa. Fortunately, I have had an opportunity to have a heart-to-heart discussion with my colleague in tourism, Minister (Patricia) de Lille.”

He claimed the circular was an internal document, issued to guide new BMA officials at ports of entry, and was not for public consumption, but “we concede that there was no need to advise anybody to leave the country on a particular day because such dates are already stipulated on the visa.”

Motsoaledi then said if tourists had applied for a visa extension but had not yet received a response, their receipt was proof of an extension of their visa until they learnt the outcome. 

“No one should arrest you while you have such a receipt, and no one can declare you undesirable.”

On 15 February, De Lille told SAfm that tourists who had already applied for visa extensions could stay until they had an outcome, and those who had yet to do so, could also still apply. 

“So, the current position is that all the tourists that have applied for visa extension, if they are in possession of a receipt that they have applied, it’s [the memo] not applicable to them.”

This is playing out differently in the real world. 

Sherwin Kendall, who signed off as “confused tourist”, writes that he applied for a renewal on 1 November 2023 but has not yet received an update. 

“The DHA circular dated 2/12/2023 and statements attributed to the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Tourism by the Daily Maverick have left me confused regarding what exactly I must do in this situation. Can someone, anyone, advise regarding the ‘official’ position of the Ministry of Home Affairs on whether being in possession of a receipt of application for a short-term visa extension, allows me to remain in South Africa until a renewal outcome is received without being declared undesirable?”

Kendall copied his note to numerous Home Affairs officials and VFS staff, but there was no response. He called associated numbers (provided by VFS) that were never answered. Kendall also visited the Randburg Home Affairs office, which was unable to advise.

“I was told that this matter is not handled by their office and that they could not give me any status or clarification.”

Another tourist told Daily Maverick that since they were entitled to dual citizenship, they had hoped to apply for a South African passport to avoid the risk of not receiving their visa renewal by the end of the month. Fearing the SA passport application would be cumbersome, they decided to leave the country on 26 February.

In another case, a woman was banned in December, despite applying for her visa extension well in time.

A Russian tourist had arrived in South Africa on 31 July 2023, applied for a visa extension soon after, and was told to wait for an outcome, which she did, overstaying her three-month visa. 

By 11 December, the extension had still not been granted, so when she left SA to attend to a family emergency, she was declared undesirable at the border and banned for five years.

Daily Maverick contacted Motsoaledi’s office to request an official statement to bring certainty. However, his spokesperson, Thabo Mokgola, insisted that what Motsoaledi had told Parliament during the Sona debate was sufficient.

“Please refer to the minister’s speech during the Sona debate on the matter.”

When pressed further, he repeated: “The matter is being addressed in the speech.”

De Lille’s office merely said they had been working with the Department of Home Affairs to streamline the visa process.

“Where there are issues, Minister De Lille works with Minister Motsoaledi to resolve this.”

‘Pernicious incompetence’ 

David Frost, the CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), blames the Department of Home Affairs for the fiasco, saying Satsa has asked for an official document, but nothing has been forthcoming.

“Both the Tourism Minister and the private sector have been trying to get a formal response but none has been forthcoming. We can’t advise people because we have no locus standi in the matter. 

“And what is appalling is despite the Ministry of Tourism being in direct contact and essentially begging for a statement, none has been forthcoming.”

Frost says Home Affairs’ approach to the visa issue is “absolute incompetence of the most pernicious kind” because if the ministry cared about tourists and the impact of the fiasco, he would have responded to the issue immediately after it had first been reported. 

“He didn’t. He should have issued an official communique so that we could communicate far and wide so that people wouldn’t be at odds and ends and cancelling holidays and not knowing what to do. It shows utter contempt for the issue at hand.

“A wise man said you must never assume malice when incompetence will suffice, but I’m beginning to think that Home Affairs is a horrible combination of both.”

Frost says SA is left eating the dust of international competitors because it can’t process visas efficiently.

“In 2013, we reached our limit of 150,000 arrivals from China. The Aussies were at 700,000. What happened in the next six years is that the Aussies doubled their arrivals from China to 1.4 million. We go backwards to 95,000, simply because Home Affairs can’t do their job. 

“The same with India: the Aussies go from 112,000 to 400,000 and we go backwards to 95,000. The two biggest and fastest growing outbound markets in the world. And we’re members of BRICS.”

‘Utterly broken visa regime’

Mireille Wenger, the Western Cape’s Finance and Economic Opportunities Minister, has expressed similar concerns. She wrote an open letter on 5 February saying that visiting “swallows” should be warmly welcomed, not coldly kicked out of South Africa. 

Wenger wrote that while SA was a destination in demand that enjoyed a record-breaking December, “I’m conflicted because I also feel a deep sense of frustration, anger and despair at the regular reports of an utterly broken visa regime, and unjustifiably long visa-processing times that plague thousands of visitors who wish to spend time and forex in South Africa”.

She said public servants have a responsibility to do all they can to build a future where our immigration policies and practices support and enable the imperative to grow a thriving national economy. 

“But right now, our opportunities to do so are at risk of fluttering away.”

Wenger told Daily Maverick on Tuesday that it was a stated objective of the national government to encourage tourists to stay longer, increase their spending and therefore contribute even more to economic growth and job creation in South Africa. 

“We have hoped that this objective, with which we completely agree, would be prioritised. We know that more tourists spending more time in the country means more jobs. 

“The national ministers of Home Affairs and Tourism must ensure that the confusion and harm done by the ‘directive’ are urgently cleared up before any more economic and job-killing damage is done.”

Stats SA’s latest tourism and migration data, released on 27 February, shows overseas tourists constituted 20.1% (195,423) of all visitors — 48.1% of whom came from the UK (40,517), Germany (31,072) and just 22,447 from the US. The bulk of our visitors come from the SADC region.

Frost says it is unlikely that SA will be able to double the numbers from North America and Europe, but India and China have the greatest potential for growth. 

De Lille has previously called for a visa waiver for both these markets and said plans were in place to translate the e-visa website and expedite the application process for Chinese visitors. DM

Published by Daily Maverick, 27 Feb 2024, Georgina Crouth

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