Major immigration law overhaul amid rising unemployment and xenophobic tensions in South Africa

South Africa is proposing sweeping changes to its citizenship, immigration, and refugee laws, deeming current regulations relics of the colonial era. Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi unveiled a White Paper suggesting a unified law to replace existing citizenship, refugee, and immigration acts, streamlining the complex immigration system. The nation, grappling with a 32.6% unemployment rate, aims to establish an advisory board on immigration, seeking public input until January 19. With resentment over job competition and intermittent xenophobic violence, immigration emerges as a critical issue ahead of the 2024 general elections.

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South Africa Unveils Proposals for Major Immigration Overhaul

By Adelaide Changole

South Africa unveiled proposals aimed at overhauling and simplifying laws governing citizenship, immigration and refugee protection. 

“The South African Citizenship Act is a relic of the colonial era and a replica of the 1949 citizenship act under the union of South Africa,” Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said in a media briefing from Pretoria. “In practice, these pieces of legislation are not in harmony with each other.”

Among the initiatives outlined in a White Paper is a review of South Africa’s refugee laws, which prohibit the state from refusing entry, expelling, or extraditing asylum seekers and refugees. 

The country of about 62 million sees as many as 20,000 undocumented immigrants arrive annually, and is home to almost 4 million migrants, according to government data. The government says the laws, including the 1951 United Convention on Refugees, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention, don’t give it the ability to deal with what it calls a migration crisis.

“The White Paper proposes that the government of the republic of South Africa must review, and/or withdraw from the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol,” Motsoaledi said. “We need to press a reset button.” 

Members of the public have until Jan. 19 to comment on the White Paper before it goes back to Cabinet for approval.

Among the proposals:

  • A repeal of South Africa’s citizenship, refugee and immigration acts, to be replaced with a singular law.
  • An overhaul of a “nightmare” immigration system that includes 17 different types of visas. Border management, citizenship, and immigration laws would be streamlined.
  • South Africa wants to set up an advisory board on immigration with representatives from the departments of trade, labor and employment, tourism, police service, revenue services, defense, and home affairs, among others.
    • The board should also have four representatives from private sector, with expertise in administration, regulatory matters and immigration law, to be appointed by the home affairs minister.

Africa’s most industrialized nation has been a magnet for people seeking economic opportunities from across the continent, particularly from the Southern African Development Community countries. 

The influx has come even as South Africa grapples with a 32.6% unemployment rate — among the highest globally.  

The presence of large numbers of foreigners has sparked resentment among some locals, who see them as competitors for scarce jobs, health care and housing, and the country has been wracked by intermittent xenophobic violence. 

The issue has become a flashpoint approaching general elections in 2024, with some parties positioning their electoral platforms around cutting immigration.  Read more:

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.