South Africa’s visa system crisis threatens German businesses and local jobs – Katzenellenbogen

The visa system in South Africa has been plagued by long delays and inefficiencies, causing significant concerns for businesses, particularly German companies operating in the country. The system for issuing work visas has been described as a disaster and requires a complete overhaul. The lengthy and unpredictable process, which can take up to 48 weeks for a general work visa, hinders the ability of multinational companies to bring in skilled personnel and negatively impacts economic opportunities. The government’s efforts to address the issue have been criticised for lack of progress and insufficient urgency. The outdated paper-based system and bureaucratic bottlenecks further exacerbate the problem. Streamlining the work visa system would not only attract more multinational companies but also position South Africa as a preferred location for regional offices. However, despite some proposed recommendations and plans, actual implementation and tangible improvements have been lacking.

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Why are we paying a high cost for SA’s visa system?

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

Last week the body that represents German business in South Africa took the unprecedented step of issuing a public warning about the dire consequences of the long delays in the approval of work visa applications.

This is a problem that the government has known about for a long time, and it is on the priority list of its Operation Vulindlela, the flagship economic reform programme launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa three years ago. Progress in resolving the problem has been minimal.

A report on South African work visas issued last August by the Presidency and the National Treasury concluded that the system for issuing visas for foreigners to work in this country is a disaster, and requires a complete overhaul. Meanwhile, the country is increasingly losing opportunities and business.

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Long and tortuous

The report admits that the issuing of work visas is long and tortuous. It takes far longer than in most other countries. It takes an average of nearly six months to complete the process. This includes the time the applicant takes to obtain the documents required by Home Affairs to start the process. From submission to approval or rejection, the time to process an intracompany visa can take anywhere between 4 and 12 weeks, for a general work visa up to 48 weeks, and for a critical skills visa, about 22 weeks. By contrast, Singapore has a turnaround time for various types of equivalent visas of between two and eight weeks.

This is another ANC own goal: a problem that has been going on for a long time. For multinationals in the country, this means that they cannot bring in the skilled people, who are not available here, that they require to run their operations.

The Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry warned in an interview with news agency Bloomberg that delays in the issuing of work visas threatened operations that support up to 100 000 local jobs. It said that all levels in German companies, from CEOs to technicians, were affected by the delays in issuing visas.

The Chamber has 600 member companies, who contribute up to ten percent of our income from exports. They dominate the car assembly industry and have a sizeable presence in a wide range of engineering-type sectors that are critical for the functioning of a modern economy.

It is highly unlikely that the German Chamber would have spoken out, if it had not previously pleaded with the Department of Home Affairs. Before going public, the Chamber must have asked German diplomats to raise the issue with their South African counterparts. Clearly, the German companies are reaching the end of their tether.

Cannot be idle

The threat that many German companies might no longer be able to operate here if the problem of the long delay in issuing visas is not resolved cannot be an idle one. Take the example of car production. Car companies use a lot of unique technology and need to send qualified technical staff around the world to sort out problems when starting up a new assembly line.

It is unlikely that there are local staff ready and able to take on these tasks in most countries where these firms operate. They need to be trained, and once trained can probably be sent to other plants around the world to start up and train other staff.

That’s the way multinationals often operate, and they need to do so with speed. It’s not something that the Department of Home Affairs seems to have fully grasped. Either that, or it is simply not seized by the urgency of the matter.

It is not only the German companies that are affected by the delays in visas for key staff, but also other multinationals and businesses that need high-end skills.

The review of the work visa system last year revealed the irony that a large number of unskilled and low-skilled immigrants enter the country, often illegally, but there are severe limitations on entry of highly skilled migrants. It says there are an estimated 3.95 million foreigners in the country, and only a few thousand critical skills visas are approved each year.

It admitted that: “For applicants, the process is lengthy, unpredictable, and inefficient. For business the system does not provide adequate flexibility, given the dynamic nature of skills needed in the economy. For the Department of Home Affairs, the process is highly complex, relies on other departments and agencies and places a high administrative burden on a comparatively small workforce.”

Outrageous aspects

One of the most outrageous aspects of the system in the 21st Century is that the work visa processing system is paper-based. With that, there are difficulties in tracking and sharing documents, and the greater risk that they will get lost as the application is transferred between offices. A work visa has to go through four agencies, all of them bottlenecks: Home Affairs, Higher Education and Training, the South African Qualifications Authority, and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

There are also data entry problems and little chance to share information with the applicant or department.

There are enormous upsides to turning the system around. Streamlining the work visa system would position South Africa as a preferred location for head and regional offices for multinationals, as the report argues.

The sort of visas that multinationals in South Africa require are mostly intra-company work visas. This should be a straightforward process, as there are not that many applicants compared to other categories. In 2021, the latest year for which data is available, there were only 943 applications. These should be placed in an expedited work stream until the system is overhauled.

So, what is the plan to turn around the country’s work visa regime?

Read more: Zimbabweans face deportation from South Africa as special visa terminated – Katzenellenbogen

Plan of action

In April this year, some seven months after the release of the report on the work visa system’s failings, the Home Affairs Department came up with its recommendations and a plan of action to deal with the failings. On most items there has been no actual action, but only consultations and talks between government agencies. And clearly there has not been enough of an improvement to stop the Germans from complaining.

Requirements for an X-ray to ensure the applicant is not a TB carrier have been scrapped, the period for which a police report is needed has been shortened, and the critical skills list updated. As of April, there were no actual plans to put in place an IT upgrade, just agreements with other departments to help with the project.

There is progress on registering companies for a Trusted Employer Scheme, which would, in theory, make it quicker to approve intracompany transfers. There are also plans to introduce new visa categories and a points-based system in the next two years.

So, there is apparent progress, but in reality, there seem to be more plans for plans than an actual implementation of a new system. It would help if the government were nimbler and more fleet of foot, while we face dire economic costs.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. 

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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