Official approach to immigration hampers growth — and looks set to worsen

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With a new bill on international migration expected to be available for comment in March 2019 and a new critical skills list intended to be implemented the  following month, would-be immigrants to SA and foreigners already living in the country are already getting a worrying preview of what these new rules may mean.

Department of home affairs officials, who are notorious for applying their own interpretations of immigration law, now appear to be pre-emptively clamping down on immigration across the board. The increase in unlawful rejections of visa applications could be a sign that the department is moving to apply restrictive new policies, in effect blocking a great deal of foreign direct investment and skills flows to the country.

Stakeholders across immigration and business are voicing increasing concern about the potential impact the draft bill and critical skills list may have on efforts to grow the economy. Efforts are under way to form a multisectoral task team under the auspices of Business Leadership SA to take the matter up with the presidency.

One of the stakeholders uniting to motivate for immigration reform, Dan Brotman, notes that immigration has a measurable positive impact on GDP growth in other countries but that SA appears to be actively restricting immigration and the granting of citizenship. The new critical skills list, he points out, was not compiled by business and industry but by the departments of home affairs, labour and higher education & training. But without industry input the critical skills list cannot deliver on the skills SA needs now to grow our economy and compete on a global scale.

The draft of the new critical skills list is significantly shorter than previous lists and omits numerous key skills. Among others, the designation “corporate general manager” appears to have been dropped from the list and no provision is made for equivalent skills. This implies that high-level CEOs, business managers and consultants will no longer be able to apply for scarce skills visas, which raises questions about whether foreign business investors and multinationals will be able to support their local investments with the right level of staff.

The draft list now allows for foreign language skills only if they are to be used in call centres. This excludes the high-level foreign language skills needed by organisations engaged in pan-African and international trade, consulting and support. For enterprises desperately short of next generation technology skills to drive innovation, it should  be of some concern to find that artificial intelligence and machine learning experts, internet of things and data science skills are not included on the new critical skills list.

The country’s existing immigration laws — and their interpretation by home affairs officials — already stand in the way of delivering on the president’s goals of fast-tracking economic growth, generating employment and encouraging foreign direct investment. For example, to obtain a business visa, applicants require a minimum R5m investment originating from outside SA. This is 10 times the amount required in Singapore and blocks start-ups and entrepreneurs who have raised local funding.

Another example is the provision in the existing act for a retirement visa to be issued to anyone with assets realising more than R37,000 per month (regardless of age). In practice, officials are loath to issue these, claiming that the applicant should be a certain age to receive this visa or that  the officials have no guarantee that the applicant will not start working in the country. This hampers much-needed foreign spend in coastal and tourist resorts frequented by many foreign pensioners for months every summer.

In addition, general work visas are no longer issued, with the result that thousands of foreigners already in SA are unable to renew their visas as employers are encouraged to employ South Africans instead. This, however, has resulted in illegality, unnecessary and costly appeals, and heartache for many foreign families resident in SA. And the unemployment rate has increased significantly. The bar on issuing these visas accordingly did nothing more than contribute to and increase the number of unemployed persons in SA, living here legally or not.

SA must reverse this trend of locking down our borders and excluding the free flow of investment and skills. Enterprises and industry players need to carefully consider the implications of the new bill and critical skills list, and submit their comments.

The president himself should intervene to ensure home affairs supports his objectives for economic growth and foreign trade and investment. The department’s officials need to act with due respect for the law, their constitutional obligations, immigration jurisprudence, the rights of people and the best interests of the country.

• De Saude-Darbandi is founder and director of De Saude Attorneys.