South Africa’s ‘staggering’ visa quagmire bogs down economy

Long visa waits are common in much of the world but South Africa has some of the biggest jams, business groups say.

Tens of thousands of foreign executives, engineers and other key workers have endured a year-long wait for South African visas that business groups say is costing investment and threatening the country’s position as a continental hub.

Already suffering from lacklustre growth and high unemployment, the government has acknowledged that a skill shortage is throttling development.

And a huge backlog in visa processing has worsened the problem.

Long visa waits are common in much of the world but South Africa has some of the biggest jams, business groups say.

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“We have various cases of people who have been waiting for more than a year,” said Pamina Bohrer, secretary general of the Italian-South African Chamber of Trade and Industries.

Besides the “psychological stress” caused to families whose lives are put on hold, firms are suspending or scrapping expansion plans in the country, she said.

“The backlog is staggering,” Busisiwe Mavuso, head of Business Leadership South Africa, which groups dozens of international companies including BP, Nestle and Unilever, wrote in a newsletter in November.

“The fact that companies can’t fill the positions means they can’t invest and expand.”

‘Critical’ skills backlog

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told a parliamentary committee in September that severe understaffing meant 74,000 applications for all types of visas were awaiting processing.

The ministry did not reply to a request for comment on latest figures.

Concerns have surged since the coronavirus pandemic, however.

In 2021, only 3,047 critical skills visas were processed, down 45 percent on 2019, according to official figures. About two-thirds were rejected.

READ MORE: SA’s border management authority: Solution or a problem in disguise?

At a time when South Africa badly needs skilled workers, its vetting is cumbersome and erratic, experts say.

Applicants have to provide medical reports, criminal records and travel plans. Business groups complain about inconsistent decision making.

Some applications are processed in weeks while others languish, they said. In some cases applicants get a permit but their spouses do not.

Some are refused for minor issues like a missing phone number.


A team tasked by President Cyril Ramaphosa to investigate visa delays said South Africa needs engineers, information technology experts and managers.

But getting a work visa can take 48 weeks or longer, it said. Waiting times in Nigeria and Kenya were more than four times shorter.

An entrepreneur replying to an anonymous survey by the EU Chamber of Commerce in South Africa last year said the visa quagmire pushed his firm to choose Ghana for a new Africa market office.

“My company would like to further expand in South Africa… but uncertainty on visas has put a temporary hold on this expansion,” the entrepreneur wrote.

In a report published last year, the team highlighted how every new skilled worker creates jobs for less qualified labour. A one percent increase in skilled immigration could increase GDP by 1.2 percent, it said.

Already hobbled by widespread power cuts and troubles running ports and the rail network, the economy is expected to grow by only 0.8 percent this year, according to the central bank. Unemployment is at 32 percent.

The team recommended reforms including new visas for remote workers and start-ups, along with a points system and a trusted employer scheme to ease hiring.

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Authorities said proposed changes would soon be announced.

But with 2024 elections looming, some believe the wait could get longer.

Many South Africans blame immigrants, particularly from neighbouring countries, for the high jobless rate and increased crime.

The government’s security-oriented approach to immigration undermines official efforts to attract investment, said Jakkie Cilliers, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank.

“We have a department of Home Affairs and a Department of Labour that actively work to frustrate foreigners coming to South Africa,” Cilliers said, noting that his firm is also struggling to secure visas for staff.

Mavuso Msimang, the head of the presidential study group, this month condemned “endemic corruption” that he said was leaving businesses “failing, downsizing or simply deciding not to invest any more”.

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