JOHANNESBURG— South Africa says it is tightening its immigration regulations to strengthen security and prevent abuse, but critics say the changes will make life more difficult for foreigners in Africa’s economic powerhouse.
For nearly two decades, South Africa has been a haven for the continent’s poor, and for immigrants seeking a better life in Africa’s most advanced nation.
But a set of immigration restrictions introduced in recent days has closed those welcoming arms. In the early days of President Jacob Zuma’s second term, his government is looking to crack down on immigration abuses.
Among the changes are a new “critical skills visa” for those with job skills in high demand.
But the changes that have people worried are those that involve tighter enforcement of existing rules. Those who overstay their visa could now be deemed “undesirable” and barred from the country.
That is a real risk even for law-abiding immigrants, because the Home Affairs office is not only notoriously slow and inefficient, but also has been slapped with numerous allegations of corruption.
New Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba is the former minister of Public Enterprises, a job that saw him try, unsuccessfully, to overhaul the national airline. He says the changes are necessary, and no harsher than in other countries.
“We remain resolute that the new immigration regulations are in line with our objective of managing immigration efficiently and effectively in order to facilitate socio-economic development as well as to protect the integrity of our borders and sovereignty of our country," he said. "By then, we aim to achieve the delicate balance between facilitating visitors to our country whilst ensuring the safety of our country."
South Africa’s census says about 100,000 temporary residence visas were processed during the last census year, 2011.
About a quarter of those permits were issued to citizens of two nations: Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
That makes immigration a hot-button issue among some South Africans, who accuse immigrants of reducing their economic opportunities in a nation where more than a quarter of the population is unemployed.
In recent years, that anger has spilled over into xenophobic riots and violence against African immigrants.
An immigration lawyer in Pretoria, Julian Pokroy, says some of the changes, such as the critical skills visa, are welcome.
But he says others are less so. He also described the sudden introduction of the new rules as “an ambush.”
“The way they did it has caused an enormous amount of confusion. There are a lot of contradictions in the regulations," he said. "As I said, there are potential unconstitutionalities. Some of it is bad in its administrative law, and some of the regulations contradict provisions in the Act.”
Pokroy, who serves as chairman of the immigration law committee of South Africa’s Law Society, says he expects some of the new rules to be challenged in court. For example, he says, the laws could end up separating non-South Africans from their South African spouses and children, which could be a violation of the constitution’s right to family life.
“What has happened is there has been, as I have said at the outset, families that are going to be separated if this is not varied in some way or some exceptional circumstances are considered, humanitarian considerations.... It is harsh, harsh, harsh; it has not been thought out,” Pokroy said.
Gigaba has also acknowledged that many of the nation’s immigration issues come from within his ministry, which he has vowed to clean up.