Home Affairs intent on talking while visa regulations perpetuate cycle of poverty

Much has been written and said about the Department of Home Affairs (DHA’s) current visa regulations. Most recently, the DHA’s Deputy Minister, Fatima Chohan, engaged business people at a public session hosted by Wesgro where a number of concerns were raised.

In this session, the Deputy Minister promised ongoing dialogue and consultation, but there still appears to be much room for improvement. Policies and regulations aside, anecdotal evidence does not support the Deputy Minister’s contention that “… if we just continue talking to each other, we can turn the 25% decline in tourist numbers into a 50% gain”.

The background is that the DHA has introduced visa regulations aimed at improving South Africa’s national security and at reducing child trafficking. These are commendable ‘ends’, which no rational person will be likely to dispute. Deputy Minister Chohan made the point that South Africa is the largest recipient of asylum seekers globally and that as a country, we have a responsibility to protect our national interests. She said that in 1994, when the ANC government was inaugurated, SA did not have a well-functioning Department of Home Affairs, and that the country was largely corrupted by the apartheid regime. Again, that is true.

However, the DHA seems unable to grasp that if we fail to understand our history we are doomed to repeat it. In driving for security in its regulations, and in mooting that “business interests are not our only interests”, the Department appears not to realise that SA’s national security cannot be attained sans SA’s national prosperity.

In many ways they are one and the same – a growing, robust inclusive economy is a prerequisite to restore hope in SA Incorporated – to offer a ray of light to the millions of South Africans living in abject poverty that their quality of life, and that of their children, will improve. Government’s redistributive policies over the past 20 years have reached their limit – you cannot redistribute what you don’t have.

Any government that allows millions of people to continue living in poverty – which, through poorly considered and (even) more poorly executed policies and regulations actively undermines job creation and hence an improved quality of life for its people – cannot in good faith expect that it will be warmly embraced by right-thinking people.

A year ago, professional services firm Grant Thornton revealed that the new visa regulations would cost the country more than 21 000 jobs and several billions of Rand in lost revenue. Last week the firm reported that it has already cost SA R1.6 billion in direct spending from overseas tourists alone. Exact figures aside, the damage being done to SA’s tourism, trade and investment capability, and hence the impact that this has on job and wealth creation, is incalculable.

Businesses – and indeed countries – need talented, highly-skilled people who are focussed on, among other things, innovation to help drive ongoing value and wealth creation. Global evidence shows that immigration grows both jobs and gross domestic product (GDP) and supports the view that in order to grow the economy, one of the key pillars needs to be skills densification.

An ‘open to skills‘ philosophy and practice is essential to long-term prosperity. As Michael Porter says, national prosperity is created, not inherited. Our behaviour, policies and practices directly impact on the extent to which we thrive, or falter. We cannot live on past glory or likewise blame the past indefinitely. The DHA has a key role to play in creating an enabling environment for business to attract, retain and grow skills. The current focus on border protection, whilst commendable, cannot be successful in isolation.

With the current regulations a number of business leaders, in particular of multinational companies with African operations headquartered in SA, are actively looking to relocate outside of SA to mitigate the negative impact. The DHA is well aware of the threat posed by its regulations to business. Accelerate Cape Town has been in ongoing conversations with the Department for over a year, trying to enable prominent multinational companies to remain in SA. Despite this, no significant progress has been made and the country stands to lose.

Engagement between business and government is healthy, as is robust debate. We may not always agree, but that is both assumed and accepted. The overriding fact is that SA faces a national crisis, brought about by the ‘lethal cocktail’ of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Only through collective, sustained action will we be able to overcome the challenges we face.

This is not a political matter. It is not a business matter. It is a human matter. The DHA may believe that we have the benefit of time in which to “… continue talking to each other…”, but this is not the case. Many people are losing their jobs and many more denied the potential of employment that will now never be realised.

While it should continue to engage all stakeholders, the DHA should also expedite the rolling out of the necessary infrastructure in Chinese and Indian markets so that at least those tourists aren’t prohibited from visiting South Africa, and contributing to our economy, in the medium term. Anything less is tantamount to sabotaging our country, whose people deserve better.

This feature article appeared in Politicsweb.co.za on 16 July 2015

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