Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Private sector can help government with critical skills visa backlog

A lack of critical skills is holding back the South African economy but the problem is not being solved fast enough.

The private sector is willing to help government with the visa backlog to ensure that people with critical skills can start working in the country to help grow the economy.

Busi Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), says in her weekly newsletter the Department of Home Affairs has a backlog of 74 000 applications for all kinds of visas according to an official quoted by Bloomberg last month.

Many of those are in the scarce skills category and the backlog exists despite concerted efforts by government led by the Operation Vulindlela programme to drive implementation of policy that will substantially improve access to scarce skills visas.

Mavuso says the backlog is staggering, a number in line with the headcount of some of South Africa’s biggest companies. She points out that if those skilled workers suddenly started working in our economy, the impact would be significant.

“The fact that companies cannot fill the positions means they cannot invest and expand. Expansion would enable much further employment, more tax generated and the overall business environment greatly improved.”

ALSO READ: These are the jobs that can get you a critical skills visa in SA

One additional job for every critical skill post filled

She says the presidency has estimated that one additional job is created for every skilled position filled. Although companies told Mavuso anecdotally that Home Affairs’ service improved, the backlog remains a problem.

“I highlighted what poor visa policy does to business in the past and the good work that has been done under Operation Vulindlela to overhaul the policy. The presidency has said access to visas is the second biggest constraint on the economy after load shedding.”

The new policies include the introduction of a trusted employer scheme that will allow certain companies to fast-track applications. Home Affairs said in April that it would have the scheme in place within three months.

Mavuso says there has certainly been progress, with application forms published in October. “However, to date no company benefits from the scheme yet and there does not appear to be a clear timeline for when they will.”

Home Affairs also missed deadlines for other visa reforms, including remote working visas to enable so-called “digital nomads” to work from South Africa and visas for founders of start-ups who choose to launch their companies in South Africa, she says.

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‘Not all changes are so difficult’

“I appreciate that some policy reforms can be challenging, requiring legislative amendments and changes to regulations in multiple domains. But not all are so difficult. Regulations for remote workers, for example, can be changed simply by revising the immigration regulations, a relatively straightforward process.”

However, she warns, even when improved policy outcomes are delivered, the backlog will still be a problem.

“It appears to be fundamentally administrative, as Home Affairs simply does not have the capacity to process the applications.”

Mavuso says that needs a long-term fix that must be made by the department, with appropriate resourcing to manage the load, but there is clearly a need for a short-term stopgap to get on top of long-outstanding applications.

Business could help, she says. ”The private sector has extensive administrative capacity that could be drawn on to process the backlog. While the procedures to do so would have to be determined and staff capacity will have to be built through some training, the backlog could be resolved in a matter of months.”

The right technology could also be brought in to improve processing, given that Home Affairs computers work at roughly one sixtieth the speed of those in most banks. In much the way that business assisted government with technical skills to resolve infrastructure breakdowns ranging from sewerage treatment plants through to electricity stations, the visas backlog could be tackled through a partnership between business and government. It is certainly a possibility worth exploring, she says.

ALSO READ: ‘This is not progress’: Operation Vulindlela report sparks debate

Clear incentive for private sector to find solution

“Business has a clear incentive to find a solution. The inability to bring in foreign skills risks pushing many companies out of South Africa entirely. We have long marketed ourselves as a “gateway to Africa”, attracting companies to set up their regional headquarters here.

“Yet many companies that did that now encounter extreme frustration bringing in the skills they need to operate. They would have no such problem had they opted instead to set up in Dubai or Mauritius. Operation Vulindlela says that applications for similar visas in Kenya take three months while in Nigeria it is two.”

In addition, analysis by Operation Vulindlela suggests that about 900 000 South Africans emigrated in 2020. Many of them were skilled and therefore freeing up the ability to attract foreign skills is very important to support the economy.

Mavuso says the backlog represents applications made through an arduous process that includes police clearance certificates from every country that applicants previously worked in. About half of the applications Home Affairs does process are rejected. Countless more are never made in the first place because potential applicants are discouraged by the bureaucracy.

“Unsurprisingly, given the delays and difficulty in making an application, the numbers have been declining, with about 3 000 scarce skills applications in 2021 compared to 7 000 in 2017. The policy overhaul proposed by Operation Vulindlela must be delivered urgently.”

Mavuso says the visa chaos is a clear example of good policy thinking failing to be implemented. “Business is willing to work with government to get to the outcomes that would leave everyone better off.”

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