Visas still snarl up investment, say envoys
European nations are still raising concerns about obstacles to President Cyril Ramaphosa's investment drive, despite measures he announced in his state of the nation address this week to tackle investor frustrations and reform the visa regime.
European diplomats in SA say there are ongoing frustrations over "restrictive" visa regulations and procedures to obtain work and temporary residence visas and permits that are "hampering rather than helping" investment and job-creation opportunities.
They are repeating calls for the visa regime to be simplified.
This week, two diplomats told the Sunday Times there were still "major difficulties" with visa regulations, particularly for CEOs to get work permits, causing some potential investors to cancel travel plans in frustration.
"The definition of essential skills, for which work permits are issued to investing foreigners, was recently narrowed rather than widened," a senior diplomat said.
"As for tourism, the recent relaxation on documentation required for unaccompanied minors remains unfortunately too ambiguous as it still allows immigration officials to request such documentation in case of doubt."
He said in practice, business people had to sometimes seek intervention from ministries to get visas. He said the system should be fixed to allow ease of travel rather than companies having to contact other people for help.
"We have raised this but do not get much traction. In fact we have seen a tightening of policies that stifle potential investment," he said.
Another diplomat said the length of time it took to process visas sometimes led to travel plans being cancelled.
Their concerns follow a letter to Ramaphosa by the EU delegation to SA on October 19 last year on behalf of the 28 EU member states, alerting him to persisting difficulties ahead of his investment summit.
The letter, sent to presidency director-general Cassius Lubisi, and copied to then home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba, tourism minister Derek Hanekom, international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu and economic development minister Ebrahim Patel, said EU ambassadors based in SA all saw "considerable potential for further growth in visitor numbers and economic investments from Europe if encouraged by the right policies".
The letter, signed by EU delegation ambassador Marcus Cornaro and Austrian ambassador Johann Brieger on behalf of the presidency of the Council of the EU, expressed concern that none of the measures to modify visa requirements announced by Gigaba in September affected EU member states. It said there was "a risk of ambiguity" about requirements for travelling children, and obtaining work and residence visas for SA "remains challenging for European citizens".
"Work and residence visas are often an essential part of investment projects, in particular for small and medium enterprises," the letter states.
"We therefore encourage the South African Government to include improved travel measures for all citizens of the European Union as part of the investment and tourist drive."
The ambassadors called for visa requirements in place for some EU states to be waived, the allowed duration of stay to be brought up to 90 days, and asked that procedures for residence and work visas and permits be "simplified and clarified".
Ramaphosa announced on Thursday that SA would introduce a "world-class" eVisa regime this year to assist in growing the local tourism sector. Instead of applying for a South African visa at an embassy, prospective visitors could apply online, and the final visa could be printed at home.
He said the goal was to receive 21-million tourists by 2030, up from 10-million in 2018.
Home affairs minister Siyabonga Cwele told the Sunday Times yesterday that the eVisa programme would be piloted in New Zealand and, depending on its success, would then be rolled out elsewhere.
Ramaphosa also said a team from the presidency, Invest SA, the National Treasury and the department of planning, monitoring & evaluation had been established to address policy, legal, regulatory and administrative barriers that frustrate investors.
A diplomatic storm erupted last week over a memorandum by five Western nations also flagging obstacles to investment, including concerns about the rule of law and visa regulations.
Sisulu issued a demarche against Britain, the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland for handing the memorandum directly to officials in the presidency instead of communicating via diplomatic channels. The ANC accused the five nations of wanting to influence the outcome of the May elections and wanting "regime change".
The letter from the EU Commission was sent to the presidency after Ramaphosa's announcement of an economic stimulus package and recovery plan.
Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko was not available for comment. International relations spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said it was normal for the department to receive such letters from embassies.
"This is what ambassadors do every day. They represent the interest of their countries and their citizens," he said.
Home affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the department was committed to supporting the president's investment drive and as at the end of January, SA had visa waiver agreements with 20 of the 28 EU countries.
He said SA issued four types of work visas, which were "pretty simple to obtain depending on the purpose". These are the critical skills, intra-company transfer, general work and corporate visas.
Qoza said the modification of visa requirements announced by Cwele at the end of November were followed by an uptick of 0.61% in traveller movements from December 1 to January 15.