SA needs to manage migrants better and that requires cleaning up home affairs

Legal grievances against the South African Department of Home Affairs, including contempt of court cases, are depressingly common. The minister had to apologise to a court.

Just a few months ago, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said, in legal papers: “I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere apology to the chief justice, all judges of the high court and Constitutional Court, the President of South Africa, minister of finance, Lawyers for Human Rights and its legal representatives and the people of South Africa.”

The issue of migration policy has never been more pressing for SA. Immigration has grown relatively rapidly in the past 20 years.


The global average immigrant population is around 3.5%. Côte d’Ivoire is the only country on the continent with a considerably higher percentage of immigrants than South Africa.

Migration policy is likely to be a key issue in South Africa’s forthcoming elections.

The reality is that the impact of migrants on the circumstances of poor South Africans is marginal and far less important than the very poor performance of the economy and many governmental institutions.

The problems

The first of the two investigations initiated by the minister was headed by Cassius Lubisi, former secretary of the cabinet. The second was headed by anti-apartheid struggle stalwart Mavuso Msimang.

Fraudulent documentation was used in 36 647 applications for visas, permits or status over a 16-year period.

Of these, 880 were approved and 288 were pending. Some 4 160 of the fraudulent applications were first rejected.


The list identifying undesirable immigrants was “fatally flawed”. In some cases, files had been inserted illegally into the information system.

The department did not have systems that could identify multiple applications by the same person.

Possible fixes

The department recently issued a draft white paper which it said was aimed at addressing the problems that had been identified.

It proposed severely curtailing the rights of prospective refugees, restricting paths to citizenship, and strengthening the Border Management Authority and supportive
institutions.

But, based on my findings, these changes won’t solve the problems.

Recommendations of the reports included:

  • major investment in and reorganisation of information systems
  • the integration of the various population databases
  • further forensic investigations to root out corruption
  • hiring and training staff with skills and integrity.

The draft white paper also does not mention the need to modernise the colonial-style bilateral labour agreements, which South Africa maintains with five regional neighbours – Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Botswana. These countries, and Zimbabwe, are the greatest source of migration.

These agreements are no longer fit for purpose

Modern bilateral labour agreements have been developed. An example is the Canadian system.

It provides for long term arrangements with full labour and social rights for the duration of the multiyear contract but no right to permanent residence for the workers or their families.

Canadian-style migrant labour agreements would encourage more migrants to choose regular migration routes.

The fundamental problem is the corruption and inefficiency in the permits and visa section of the department.

  • The article first appeared in The Conversation

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