Allowing skilled immigration is a small policy shift that could pay big dividends. SA has been advised of this repeatedly since 2008 — it is even one of government’s priority reforms — but progress is agonisingly slow.
Liberalising immigration requirements for highly skilled foreigners who want to work in South Africa has been part of SA’s policy reform kit for years. However, the politicisation of the debate, coupled with ideological opposition from within the government, has stonewalled reforms that could stimulate growth at no cost to the fiscus.
The economic literature is conclusive, finding that immigrants the world over contribute positively to economic growth. Immigration is a positive-sum game; it benefits both locals and immigrants.
This is why enabling skilled immigration was one of the recommendations made by the international growth advisory panel convened by former president Thabo Mbeki. It was also included in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic stimulus & recovery plan in 2018.
Ramaphosa clearly needs no convincing. In this year’s state of the nation address, he said: “The world over, the ability to attract skilled immigrants is the hallmark of a modern, thriving economy. We are, therefore, streamlining and modernising the visa application process to make it easier to travel to SA for tourism, business, and work.”
In February, a revised critical skills list was published for the first time since 2014. In addition, an independent review of SA’s work permit system, aimed at achieving greater openness and efficiency, is under way, led by former home affairs director-general Mavuso Msimang.
The review is exploring the possibility of new visa categories that could enable economic growth, such as a start-up visa and a remote working visa. It was supposed to be concluded in November last year, but attempts by the FM to ascertain the reasons for the hold-up were unsuccessful.
Behind the scenes, Operation Vulindlela, a task team of officials from the presidency and National Treasury, has been working hard over the past few years to provide the technical assistance to push these reforms over the line. But it has faced an uphill battle against entrenched ideological opposition, mainly from within the departments of labour and home affairs.
While SA has at last launched an e-visa system for 14 countries (including China, India, Kenya and Nigeria), the new critical skills list contains just 101 skills compared with 170 previously. It has also been criticised for serious omissions, including of most medical specialisations, maths and science teachers, and numerous artisanal skills.
Indeed, many economists ask why a country as skills starved as SA even needs a critical skills list. Instead of putting unnecessary obstacles in migrants’ way, they argue that SA should be welcoming and actively recruiting all skilled migrants for the positive economic spin-offs they generate, not just those that fit the gaps on the critical skills list.
Centre for Development & Enterprise executive director Ann Bernstein believes it is not enough for SA merely to change the relevant laws and lists.
“We need to change attitudes across government, but especially in the department of home affairs and foreign embassies,” she says. “We [also] need to work hard to persuade South Africans that immigration of skilled foreigners is not a threat to them, but a vital step in making the country more prosperous and inclusive.”
Business Unity SA CEO Cas Coovadia laments that the issue of immigration “is becoming a political football” in the run-up to the ANC electoral conference later this year.
“We should rise above this and acknowledge the severe shortage of skills in critical areas in our country,” he says. “These critical skills should be brought in because more skilled people contribute to growth and jobs. We can [also] manage such importation of skills in ways that those skills also contribute to developing South Africans in particular disciplines.”