Visas the tip of an iceberg

Britain’s imposition of visa requirements on South Africans entering the United Kingdom—a reaction to South Africa’s chronic passport insecurity—has highlighted the increasingly frosty relations between the two countries.

Under Nelson Mandela’s presidency, ties between the two countries were close. But a deepening freeze set in during Thabo Mbeki’s second term.

The clearest source of tension was a series of controversial South African votes in the United Nations Security Council against human rights-related initiatives explicitly backed by Britain.

The latter included proposals for stiffer UN action on oppression in Burma, a call for the referral of the Zimbabwean crisis to the Security Council and efforts by Britain, the United States and Europe to crack down on Iran’s covert nuclear programme.

Senior diplomats told the Mail & Guardian that the British foreign office was outraged by South Africa’s repeated decisions to side with Russia and China on issues where South Africa’s own history meant the country should have taken a firm stance in support of human rights.

Britain was disappointed, too, by the ANC’s decision to shut down the Scorpions, a unit for whose establishment it had provided advice and support.

Revelations that suspended police commissioner Jackie Selebi had passed confidential information from British police to drug dealer and murder suspect Glenn Agliotti did not help matters.

British diplomats in South Africa have also been angered by what they see as a series of snubs by ANC and government officials.
These include the failure of former parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete to meet the speaker of the British House of Lords, Baroness Helene Hayman, when she visited South Africa last year.

Even more remarkably, said one person familiar with the circumstances, Mbeki was unavailable to take a call from Gordon Brown last year—and no adequate explanation was forthcoming.

British High Commissioner Paul Boateng, formerly a junior minister in the cabinet of former British prime minister Tony Blair, was expected to build on the strong connections between the Labour Party and the ANC when he arrived in South Africa in 2004.

Talk on the diplomatic circuit is of increasingly awkward relations between the two states. “No one from the ANC comes to any of our events apart from Kader Asmal,” said a top British official. “We may have had a special relationship at one time, but now it seems that reflex anti-Western sentiments rule.”

The fact that the UK is one of South Africa’s biggest trading partners and export markets compounds the frustration, the official said.

This week Britain announced that it was removing the visa waiver from South African passport holders. Previously South Africans had been allowed to visit, but not work, in Britain for six months without a visa.

However, the cool political temperature clearly did not help as South Africa sought to win more time for the department of home affairs to repair its systems in a bid to stem the issuing of fraudulent passports.

In July last year the British government told Pretoria that the threat of terrorism had led to a re-evaluation of the visa waiver and this week it was announced that South Africa had failed the visa waiver test, while Namibia and Botswana had passed.

British officials gave the South African home affairs department six months to fix the passport system which, by South Africa’s own admission, is rife with corruption.

Home affairs officials, however, insist this cannot be done in short order. “How can we root out corruption overnight?” asked home affairs spokesperson Cleo Mosana.

British High Commission spokesperson Russ Dixon told the M&G that South African passports are the third most abused in the world. A security source with British ties told the M&G that non-South Africans were increasingly being found in possession of South African passports. “In the last reporting period alone, more than 2 000 such passports have been detected and confiscated.

“In some cases, under questioning, these undocumented illegals have admitted to paying bribes to police officers, airport security officials, or even cleaners at the airport, to be transported to the plane.

“This has resulted in the UK Border Agency having to request the airport operator at Heathrow, BAA, to assign special gates to aircraft arriving from South Africa, in order that high-security checks can be made, over and above the normal checks performed for arriving aircraft. This has been a costly and time-consuming exercise, yet the problem has not abated.”

A senior South African home affairs official, who chose to remain anonymous, complained that Britain had wanted to deport illegal immigrants with South African passports to South Africa en masse.

“They never gave us a list so that we could check whether these people are truly from South Africa or whether they fraudulently obtained the passports. So they wanted to send them all to us, thousands of them. And we said no, we are no dumping ground for your problems.”

The British argue that if an illegal immigrant can exploit the system with such success, “so could a terrorist, or worse still, a suicide terrorist”.

Nic Dawes

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