A lack of critical skills is holding back the South African economy and the government is not solving the problem as quickly as it should.
There is currently a backlog of around 74,000 applications for all types of visas at the Department of the Interior and an official attached to the department told Bloomberg earlier that many of these applications are in categories classified as “scarce skills”.
“If people with those skills were to suddenly work in our economy, the effects would be enormous,” says Busisiwe Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA).
Mavuso says businesses in South Africa cannot currently fill positions that require critical skills, which means they cannot expand either.
“Expansion will enable more employment, as well as collect more taxes and significantly improve the overall business environment,” she says.
“Several companies have informed me that the backlog still remains a problem although the Department of Home Affairs has improved its service.”
The presidency has previously pointed out that access to visas, next to load shedding, is the second biggest constraint on economic growth. New policy that should help to eliminate this problem includes the introduction of a reliable employer scheme that will allow certain companies to speed up applications. The Home Department said in April that it would have the scheme ready and in place in three months.
“There was definitely progress with application forms that were submitted in October, but to date no company has benefited from the scheme and there does not seem to be a clear timeline for when this will happen,” says Mavuso.
“Home Affairs also missed deadlines for other visa reforms, including remote work visas to enable so-called ‘digital nomads’ to work from South Africa and visas for small business founders who choose to start their companies in South Africa. “
Mavuso says she realizes that some policy reforms can involve an extensive process that requires legislative amendments and changes to regulations. According to her, not all of these reforms are that difficult, as visas for digital nomads only require revision of immigration regulations.
According to her, it is a “relatively simple process”.
“But even when better policy outcomes are delivered, the backlog will still be a problem,” says Mavuso.
“It appears to be fundamentally administrative, in that the department simply does not have the capacity to process the applications. This requires a long-term solution by the department, but there is clearly a need for a short-term solution to deal with the long outstanding applications.”
This is where business people can help the department by using its extensive administrative capacity to process the backlog.
“Although the procedures to do this must be determined, and staff capacity will have to be built through training, the backlog can be resolved within a matter of months,” says Mavuso.
“The right technology can also be brought in to improve processing, as the department’s computers work at approximately one-sixtieth the speed of those in most banks.
“Just as business has assisted government with technical skills to solve challenges with infrastructure, ranging from sewage treatment plants to power stations, the visa backlog can be tackled through a partnership between the business sector and government.”
Mavuso says it is now time to consider these types of partnerships, otherwise South Africa will lose many skilled people in the workforce.
“We have long marketed ourselves as a ‘gateway to Africa’, which has attracted companies to set up their headquarters here. Yet many companies that have brought the skills to South Africa are experiencing great frustration. They would not have had the same problem if they had instead chosen to establish themselves in Dubai or Mauritius.”
Applications for similar visas are faster in Kenya, where it takes three months to process, and in Nigeria, which takes two months to process.
However, South Africa has extensive requirements for applicants. This includes police clearance certificates from each country in which applicants have previously worked.
“Around half of the applications Home Affairs processes are rejected. Countless more are never submitted in the first place because potential applicants are discouraged by the bureaucracy. This is not surprising, given the delays and difficulties in submitting an application.”
The number of applications has decreased over the years and in 2021 only 3,000 were submitted compared to 7,000 applications in 2017.
“The visa chaos is a clear example of good policy thinking that is not applied. Business people are prepared to work with the government to achieve the outcomes that will make everyone better off.”