South Africa’s massive visa backlog is likely much, much worse

 ·21 Dec 2023

An immigration law expert says that the number of visa applications blocked due to inefficiencies at Home Affairs is likely worse than the department lets on and added it has little intention of addressing the issue because of bureaucratic attitudes towards foreigners.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi noted in a recent parliamentary Q&A that the backlog in temporary residency visas remained at over 74,309 – unchanged from the department’s last report at the end of October 2023 – adding that an additional backlog of 43,944 in permanent residency permits also remains.

South Africa has long been facing a significant skills shortage, and businesses have been struggling to attract much-needed skills to the country, with their efforts having been hindered by the failures at Home Affairs.

Companies have reported that visa applications can take up to 48 weeks to be accepted, which poses a threat to expansion plans, investment, and job creation in a country with a 33% unemployment rate.

A point of how bad the backlog is, a report prepared for the presidency noted that between 2014 and 2021, only 25,298 skilled work permit visas were approved.

Speaking to Newzroom Afrika, immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg said that the backlog crisis is probably much worse and that the numbers provided by the department are somewhat misleading.

Immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg.

“It’s unclear whether the numbers given by the department include application appeals and those under review, and that number is likely far higher than the 74,000,” said Eisenberg.

“Even if some foreigners with the means are able to get a court order to force the minister to make a decision on their applications, many of those orders are being ignored,” he noted.

Eisenberg added that skilled foreign professionals – who are needed to fill the gaps on the critical skills list – are simply walking away. “They cannot wait a year for a visa or spousal visa, so they are going elsewhere.”

He also noted that the department has little intention to fix the issues, and this is being of bureaucratic attitudes towards foreigners. “If a foreigner doesn’t want to sit and wait, then it’s fine; they must go. That’s the attitude we’re sitting with at Home Affairs,” he said.

Eisenberg also notes that he has little faith that the department will fix it anytime soon or even have the will to address the issues.

Potential evidence of this is the fact that in a parliamentary Q&A near the end of November, Motsoaledi noted that the time frame to fix the backlog has been pushed back to November 2024 from June 2024.

Eisenberg also added that his partners have been Home Affairs officials, and the issue has been part of all the work he’s done in his professional career.

“I have seen the department explain to the public repeatedly over the past 25 years that they are in the process of improvement – spending millions on turnaround projects in the process – and the department has done very little if anything,” he said.

Despite Eisenberg’s comments, there seems to be some movement by the department to address the visa crisis in South Africa.

Recently, the minister signed planned changes to work permit regulations aimed at fixing a bureaucratic morass that’s frustrating the country’s biggest investors and exacerbating a skills crisis, people familiar with the situation said.

The changes may include a range of measures suggested by a government study, including the creation of a remote worker visa category.

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