/ 22 April 2024

White Paper on immigration fails Africa’s free trade aspirations

South Africa appears to regard all foreigners with suspicion
If South Africa is intent on fulfilling the provisions of the AfCFTA, then the department of home affairs must relax, rather than retract, its visa requirements for people from other countries, particularly African ones.(Gallo)

Arguably no issue gets countries riled up more than immigration. Most of the threats to the global order over the past decade or so have been the emergence of leaders who endorse a sort of protectionism and “securing the borders”

Immigration is a hot topic in the world and on the African continent, because it is inextricably linked to other aspects of the current economic era, such as globalisation, multiculturalism and diversity. 

The Protocol to the Agreement Establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA) on Investment is very clear about its stance on immigration. Article 7 (2) stipulates that state parties must “facilitate the granting of visas and permits to foreign workers, employees and consultants as designated by the investor”. As a signatory to the AfCFTA, South Africa is also bound to implement this requirement.

If South Africa is intent on fulfilling the provisions of the AfCFTA, then the department of home affairs must relax, rather than retract, its visa requirements for people from other countries, particularly African countries.

White Paper chills immigration prospects

The department has been tinkering with changing the immigration policy of South Africa over the past two years. A White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection  was tabled in late 2023 for public comments. In it, the department presented a case of South Africa requiring tighter border controls, as well as more stringent requirements for acquiring visas and permits. 

The White Paper did not please everybody, and many civil society organisations were not happy with the contents of the paper. They have a point. 

South Africa does not need to make it harder for people to live in the country. In fact, the opposite is true: South Africa needs to make it easier for people — especially those from other African countries — to live in the country. 

Critical skills

The department’s White Paper stipulates that visas will be primarily given to immigrants who can address the occupations on the critical skills list. For instance, we do not have enough geologists, according to the list. If trained geologists from Rwanda want to work in South Africa, they are more likely to get the critical skills visa, because they address a gap in the market.

This sounds feasible, but the situation is not that simple. 

We need to ask questions about the reliability of the critical skills list, and whether this is the best way to evaluate who enters the country, and who does not. 

Governments are terrible at being at the forefront of anything, much less workforce trends across multiple industries. The structure of government makes it difficult for it to determine trends and act on them timeously. How often does the critical skills list get updated? If it is updated fairly consistently, can the department compile the information in a relatively short period to constantly update the list? Is the backlog at the department something to take into account?

All of these questions lead to an important conclusion: the department (or any other department, for that matter) will inevitably fail in upholding stringent immigration policies. 

If this is the department’s solution to the immigration crisis, then we are unlikely to see any real change. The critical skills list is attempting to solve the symptom (unskilled immigrants coming to the country seeking better opportunities) and not the disease (the government ratifying the AfCFTA while not adhering to the spirit of the agreement).

The AfCFTA is not radical; it seeks to have African countries trade goods and services with one another. The AfCFTA is radical, because it seeks to encourage cooperation of all kinds between African countries. This kind of cooperation should also include us being able to freely move throughout the continent, no visa needed.

Free trade and free movement 

Some may conflate “relaxing visa regulations” with an open border policy. That is not the case. Instead, relaxing visa regulations with trade partners means taking a page from the European Union playbook — free movement for African Union member states. It stands to reason that AfCFTA was conceptualised, in part, to create stronger links between African countries. Why must free movement on the African continent be limited to goods and services? 

Not only would this be beneficial to other African countries — because South Africans travel to their destination cities, boosting their tourism prospects — but South Africa would also benefit from a tourist boom. Free trade should go hand in hand with free movement, not least of all because the latter may improve the former. 

Research that is most relevant to the provisions of the AfCFTA Protocol on Investment shows that immigrants can boost trade from their home country to the country in which they reside. Immigrants know their home country’s language, regulations, market opportunities and informal institutions. They can use this information to help negotiate trade deals that benefit the country in which they now stay.

As a relatively influential country in the continent, South Africa is in a unique position to radically alter Africa’s prospects for the better. All the country has to do is to resist the temptation of protectionism and isolation. It is only by heeding the call of the AfCFTA Protocol on Investment, and relaxing immigration policies for other African countries, that South Africa can reap the rewards of a united Africa.

Wiseman Zondi is a writer and analyst. He is a 2022 Rhodes Scholar with an MSc in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford. He is a regular contributor for the African Free Trade and Defence Society. The views of the author are not necessarily those of the society.