Opinion: South Africa Discriminates Against Foreigners Despite Acute Need For Skills

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Written by Staff

A story in The Economist entitled “Drawbridges Up” discusses geopolitical openness in a post-Brexit world facing a continuing refugee crisis, along with the possibility of Donald Trump’s presidency. Immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg sees similar barriers going up in South Africa.

From Rand Daily Mail. Story by Claire van den Heever

The new divide in rich countries, The Economist article says, is not between the political left and right, but “open” versus “closed.”

Is South Africa raising its drawbridges, or is it as open for business as President Jacob Zuma would have us believe?

Immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg has watched for two decades as South Africa emerged from an era of enforced isolation, only to erect the same barriers to trade and capital flows that restricted the economy pre-1994.

“Barriers to trade and foreign direct investment are not always immediately visible,” says Eisenberg, recalling the U.S. and Japan’s strained economic relationship in the 1980s. “What the U.S. found particularly worrying was that, while Japan ascribed to low quotas and tariffs for the purposes of trade, its bureaucratic and cultural manner of transacting business constituted barriers to the importation of U.S. goods, services and capital.”

Eisenberg detects many of these same barriers today in South Africa – to foreigners’ entry, imports, and the personnel accompanying foreign direct investment.

Eisenberg challenged the government in High Court when it denied the Dalai Lama’s visa application ahead of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday party in 2011. The Tibetan leader-in-exile was forced to cancel his trip. For Eisenberg, the case represented a flagrant disregard of the constitution and Bill of Rights. The blatant kowtow to China would not be easily forgotten on the international stage.

“The president flies around the world proclaiming that South Africa is open for business,” says Eisenberg. In reality, this openness has fizzled with Zuma’s ascension.

“The concept of openness must always be accompanied by a decrease in bureaucratic red tape,” Eisenberg points out. But the time lags involved in registering companies, reserving trading names, successfully changing shareholders and directors, registering with professional bodies  and obtaining licensing assistance from governmental and parastatal bodies all weigh against any semblance of openness that the country wishes to project.

Meanwhile, Eisenberg notes that South Africa has become “particularly uncompetitive”, attributing this to corruption at central and local governmental levels, an ineffective judicial process, widespread bureaucratic inefficiency and, as a result of this, a compromise of the rule of law in all manner of government dealings.

“South Africa no longer has an effective foreign policy, and the value of foreigners penetrating the South African labor market and, indeed, taking up residence in the country has been acutely curtailed – not only in terms of foreign policy, but also in terms of the ineffectiveness of South Africa’s immigration policy and its emphasis on border security,” he says.

A July 2016 policy briefing published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) addresses widespread xenophobia in the country, and the resultant weakening of its foreign policy – and its Africa policy in particular.

“Xenophobic violence undermines and discredits South Africa’s unifying African foreign policy vision. It cannot be a credible African leader with violent incidents of xenophobia within its borders,” SAIIA states.

A country’s foreign policy should reflect its own domestic policy, without which its claim to a place on the international stage rings hollow. “Before assuming a robust external identity, foreign policy doctrines ought to be localised,” writes SAIIA.

“We have regressed from having a global foreign policy, to an African foreign policy, to a local, inward-looking foreign policy,” Eisenberg says.

Traditionally, entrepreneurs – bringing with them both financial and intellectual capital – have been welcomed from abroad, but they are no longer making South Africa their destination of choice. Difficulties in obtaining visas, along with having to deal with unprofessional, “often aggressive and ill-trained” consular staff posted at South African missions abroad dissuade more and more would-be émigrés with desirable skills, qualifications, and capital from relocating or investing here, Eisenberg has observed.

A declining GDP has not helped in attracting foreign capital.

“South Africa is no longer seen to possess an environment where consumer spending supports innovation and new factory capacity. The country’s labor market remains inflexible and inelastic, making it increasingly difficult for foreigners to establish labor-intensive industries – and added to this is South Africa’s declining labor productivity.”

It may sound like doom and gloom, but Eisenberg’s is a voice of reason that decision-makers ought to pay heed to in the public and private sector. The key to restoring confidence in South Africa’s economy is a stronger focus on FDI and improved free movement into the country, he says.

South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, “emphasises the implementation of an indigenisation policy with scant attention to the role of foreigners in the South African economy,” says Eisenberg. “The emphasis on border security reflects the transformation of the Department of Home Affairs from a flexible facilitator of talent, skills, and high-net worth influx into a fortress protecting South Africa for South Africans.”

The president himself failed to send a clear message of the government’s condemnation of the attacks in his statement to the National Assembly on April 19, 2015.

There are paradoxes within the bureaucracy. Submitting an application for a general work visa is one of a handful of processes that suffers from near-paralysis. Lawyers and immigration consultants can do little but observe as strenuous regulatory requirements are routinely imposed on foreigners with skills acknowledged by the government as critical, and in the national interest.

“Business visa applicants (on the basis of foreign direct investments) now have to obtain the support of the Department of Trade & Industry,” Eisenberg explains. “Most of these foreigners simply give up because the process is too frustrating and laborious to make it worth their while.”

Human trafficking has become a popular scapegoat for tightened border security, and the exaggeration of human trafficking cases in South Africa constitutes scaremongering. Local media claimed in 2013 that 30,000 children were trafficked in South Africa annually, unsupported by research. Subsequent investigations by Africa Check revealed evidence of 51 cases per year on average in the broader Southern African region.

This emphasis on human trafficking is a government-created subterfuge to justify the closing borders and aims to detract from foreign and domestic policies that are clearly at odds with one another, says Eisenberg.

The extent to which South Africa’s immigration system is working to encourage – or at least support – the assimilation of foreigners with the desired skills, qualifications, and capital can only be measured if the department publishes statistics on the number of foreigners who applied for visas, along with the results of such applications.

Failure to publish these statistics raises questions about the department’s agenda.

Eisenberg raises “questions about the integrity of the South African government in maintaining its role in an open, increasingly liberalized global order, while in fact aiming for … an isolationist indigenisation policy.”

Read more at Rand Daily Mail.