South Africa’s visa regime keeps badly needed skilled workers out

The government is blocking the potential that foreign workers can bring to SA’s stagnant economy.

South Africa’s work visa regime is laborious, lengthy and inefficient. The process deters foreign investment, widens the skills gap and throttles productivity, economic growth and development.

Between 2015 and 2021, only 16 097 critical skilled-worker permits were approved by the Department of Home Affairs. At an average of just over 2 200 a year, that amounts to a rejection rate of 52%, for an economy with a sizeable skills deficit. The business visa rejection rate over the same period is even higher, at 68%.

Some German companies have decided to sell their South African subsidiaries since they cannot get executive work permits. And despite the absence of skilled workers, technicians can’t get work visas, contributing to the construction and maintenance problems at the country’s electricity and transport parastatals, ESKOM and TRANSNET.

The home affairs and labour departments – the two key players in this bureaucratic obfuscation – seem impervious to how much they undermine the Presidency’s and other government efforts to attract foreign direct investment and grow the economy. Since the cabinet’s 2020 decision to streamline the work visa process, there has been little indication of any movement.

Getting a South African work permit is laden with bureaucratic hurdles. Permits appear only to be granted through the critical skills process, which is based on the Department of Labour’s International/Cross-Border Labour Migration checklist.

Since the cabinet’s 2020 decision to streamline the work visa process, there has been little movement

Home affairs’ critical skills list of 140 occupations is incomplete – just as any effort to document every skills deficit would be – given the pace of growing economic complexity in a world of artificial intelligence and renewable energy. Regional organisations such as the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and most academic institutions value a diverse staffing composition, which isn’t allowed under the current system.

One of the 22 critical skills visa requirements is that the employer must prove that no citizen or permanent resident with the required qualifications, skills and experience is domestically available. The high cost of advertising and other requirements makes this an expensive exercise.

For instance, a police clearance certificate has to be obtained in an applicant’s country of origin. Applying in South Africa is possible but costly. For a critical skills visa, a person’s qualification must be verified by the South African Qualifications Authority, which can take over six months. Applicants must first register with a professional body in South Africa, which, outside of fields like law, engineering and medicine, is difficult if not impossible.

Securing an application appointment (usually through VFS Global) can take up to three months. A prospective ISS employee recently arrived at the appointed time but was turned away because home affairs’ backlog was too great. Although critical skills applications are expected to take eight weeks, ISS sometimes waits a year or more.

Even after a long waiting period, there is no guarantee of success. Reasons for rejections are spurious, often based on ‘missing documents’ that were in fact supplied. Home affairs rejects many visas based on a ‘negative recommendation from the Department of Labour.’ Applicants then have 10 days to appeal, but the only real recourse is an expensive legal challenge.

Instead of taking eight weeks, critical skills applications can take up to a year or more

One prospective ISS employee could not travel for more than a year while his passport was being held as part of his skilled work permit application. Those applying through VFS could, in theory, get their passports back by providing a written motivation.

Also, the certification of documents by a Commissioner of Oaths is valid for only three months. Those whose applications are not processed within this period are sometimes denied visas for expired documents or called to recertify and resubmit – if they are lucky.

Even short-term visitor and business visas are a problem. African and international organisations we work with now refrain from hosting events or meetings in South Africa, meaning the country loses revenue from the lucrative event and conference business.

Another major problem is that spouses of critical skills visa holders are not allowed to work in South Africa, requiring them to put their careers on hold. The only alternative for a spouse is to apply for permanent residence, which can take at least five years.

A 2018 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Labour Organization found that immigrant workers may increase South Africa’s gross domestic product per capita by 5%. Similarly, a 2018 World Bank report found that immigrants in South Africa positively impacted employment and wages for locals, generating approximately two jobs for every migrant.

The ministers for home affairs and labour have adopted a punitive approach to skilled and unskilled foreigners

South Africa must urgently reduce the time frames and simplify the procedures for obtaining work visas. Online applications should be the norm, but the country’s IT system upgrade has been several years in the works. Immigration regulations should also allow foreign spouses with dependent (spouse) visas to work in South Africa.

In 2022, former home affairs director-general Mavuso Msimang recommended that the 22 requirements for skilled work permits be reduced to eight, with a lower compliance threshold and a two-week time frame.

Several years before, the 2017 White Paper on International Migration for South Africa stated that the ‘attraction and retention of skilled international migrants and business persons who contribute positively to the economy’ is one of seven key outcomes. It confirms that the country can’t attract and retain sought-after international skilled and business persons, who play a role in promoting economic growth.

Neither home affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, nor the Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi, appear willing to move forward. Instead, they have adopted a punitive approach to foreigners, skilled and unskilled alike. It is time for an upgrade.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Motshwari Mofokeng

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The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

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