Sim Kyazze arrived in South Africa from his hometown of Kampala, Uganda, in 2003, eager to contribute to the economic pulse of the country he considered to be “Africa’s heartbeat.”
The media specialist with a master’s degree from New York University and his Kenyan wife, Denise, a medical doctor, had given up scholarships in the United States and United Kingdom respectively in order to build their lives in South Africa.
“People, especially Africans, can’t believe that we gave up careers in the US and the UK. They still think we’re insane – and after all we’ve been through the past 10 years, maybe we are!” said Sim. He continued, “But we both have strong African identities. We wanted to share our skills with Africans, while still having a decent lifestyle. South Africa seemed like the perfect place to achieve this….”
But while Sim has an academic position at one of South Africa’s top tertiary institutions, Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape province, Denise has been struggling for almost a decade to work as a doctor in the country.
She’s a victim of immigration regulations that prevent many foreigners, even those with sought-after skills like hers, from working in South Africa.
Denise studied medicine in Canada for five years, after which she completed two years of community service there. She stayed to study internal medicine for four more years, supplementing her master’s degree with another in clinical studies from the University of London.
With all of this education and practical experience, Denise is more than qualified to manage the local public hospital’s Intensive Care Unit [ICU].
“The hospital wants her. The CEO has applied a number of times to the provincial health department for permission to appoint her. But they just put roadblocks in [the] way,” said Sim. “She is a permanent resident so she’s allowed to work, but of course, she’s a foreign-qualified doctor….”
South Africa is enduring an intense shortage of medical doctors. In the absence of a qualified medical professional to lead it, the ICU in Grahamstown remains closed. Patients who need intensive care must be taken about 150 miles away to the nearest ICU.
“It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?” asked Sim. “Here you have the perfect person to fill this gap, right in your lap – but you don’t take advantage, simply because that person has a different passport to you….”
In an effort to establish what she needs to do in order to begin working as a physician, Sim said Denise has visited immigration officials at Department of Home Affairs [DHA] offices repeatedly in recent years.
“They just tell [her], ‘You need to do these exams and you need to do those exams and basically every day they invent new exams for [her] to sit. It’s something which is almost intentional. It’s something they do to basically frustrate people,” said Sim. “When she tells them, ‘Okay, give me your exams,’ they always have another excuse as to why she can’t take them at this point in time.”
Denise is presently employed as a medical officer at a psychiatric institution. Her duties are mainly administrative, and her salary is far less than she’d be earning as a physician.
“I think she’s being misused.... She should be treating people who have got medical, internal medicine, problems, like problems with your pancreas. That’s what she’s trained to do. She’s trained to be a hands-on doctor and not a manager,” said Sim.
“Amendments to the immigration act and increased restrictions have made it much more difficult even for skilled migrants to work in South Africa,” said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the Center for African Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “We’re seeing a lot of migrants who are professionals being forced into the unskilled labor market because they can’t get documented to work in their fields of expertise.”
She said while South Africa is experiencing dire shortages of both teachers and doctors, the DHA is not allowing many migrants qualified in these professions to register as such.
“In terms of the restrictions that they’ve placed on professionals, I don’t think they understand how catastrophic it’s going to be [for South Africa],” said Amit.
The Kyazzes aren’t convinced that South African immigration officials are discriminating against them because they’re foreigners. Rather, said Sim, they feel they’re suffering because of the “general incompetence” of the DHA.
“For me, I imagine that the incompetence of the South African government is an equal opportunity offender, really! It doesn’t pick out foreigners. It treats us and South Africans equally badly,” he said.
Sim added, “I have experienced immigration officials who just did not know the country’s immigration laws.”
He explained, “When I first got my job, in 2003, it was a permanent job. Now, according to South African law, if you fulfill all the requirements necessary to secure permanent employment in the country, then you are automatically eligible to apply for permanent residency. But nobody in Home Affairs could actually tell me that I needed to apply for permanent residence. So as a result of that, I [erroneously] applied for a work permit. And it took me five years to correct that problem. Five years!”
As a result, Sim was forced to constantly reapply for a work permit. The permit’s regulations meant he had to remain in the same position, without the possibly of promotion, for five years.
He said the DHA officers seemed unsure of what he needed to do in order to regularize his stay in South Africa.
“Always they would tell me, ‘Sim, come [back] tomorrow,’ so I come tomorrow, [Then they would say] ‘Come the next day.’ Every day they have new instructions [like] ‘Can you bring your passport?’ Can you bring whatever…”
He said he was “amazed” by the immigration officials’ “lack of professionalism.”
“You go there and [an official] is eating lunch saying ‘Oh Sim; what can I do for you?’ And he’s having lunch in front of a client. You don’t do those kinds of things…. Food flying out of his mouth….”
Better quality life
Sim said if he had a cent for every time he and his wife had considered abandoning their South African dream in “abject frustration,” he’d be a multimillionaire.
“We could have left easily because our skills mean we can work anywhere in the world,” Sim stated, and added, “We stay because we want the extremely good that South Africa has to offer and we live in hope that the extremely bad, like the crime, doesn’t find us…and that eventually the government will allow us to work to our potential here in South Africa.”
He acknowledged that their quality of life in South Africa is a lot higher than it would be in Uganda. “For you to afford a middle class existence in Uganda you need to be very rich,” said Sim.
“South Africans moan about how life is deteriorating in South Africa. But if they lived in Uganda for just one week they would see the true deterioration of a public sector. In Uganda the roads are so bad that a car that should last you 15 years only lasts five…. For you to have electricity all the time, you need to have a generator. If I went to [a public] hospital to get medical help, I would be in trouble; I would have to go to a private hospital.”
Sim said he and his wife will probably be able to afford a good education for their daughter, who’s now three years old, in South Africa, but that this would be too expensive in Uganda.
“South Africa is still a gateway to the world compared with Uganda. I have a lot more opportunities here than back home. South Africa has opened the world for me. In Uganda the problem is always resources. South Africa, even though it still has an immense problem with poverty, is so resource-rich it’s unbelievable. If you have a decent job here your quality of life is amazing.”
South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs did not respond to repeated requests for comment with regard to this article.