Blunders in Africa: South Africa softens harsh visa rules, Kenya's border wall troubles, but Zambia can be different

South Africa’s economy has been suffering. Placing stringent regulations on tourism was ill-advised and needlessly so

SOUTH Africa has backtracked on stringent, much-criticised visa regulations for children after the number of visitors to the country dropped sharply, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said.

The number of air passengers under 18 years of age travelling to and from the country fell 50% from a year earlier in June and July, due to a requirement to carry an unabridged birth certificate starting in June, the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association said on Oct. 1.

Carrying the certificate was ostensibly aimed at reducing child trafficking, but has instead depressed tourism numbers, particularly among under-18s; experts have also questioned the evidence regarding its impact on curbing child smuggling.

Last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs stringent visa rules required applications be made in person, in a visitor’s home country. It meant that renewing a visa would necessarily entail travelling back home – expenses that would be punitive to many immigrants, especially students on a tight budget.

Radebe now says that authorities will accept visa requests by post, and will set up biometric testing at its airports.

Killing golden goose
But in the light of South Africa’s dismal economic performance lately, placing stringent regulations on the one sector where South Africa is a clear leader in Africa – tourism, and particularly education tourism –  was not just an ill-advised move, but needlessly so, akin to killing the golden goose.

The country’s economy unexpectedly shrank in the second quarter, data released in August showed, raising fears of a recession as gross domestic product fell by an annualised 1.3%.

The slowdown was across the board, with manufacturing, mining and agriculture industries lagging the most in Africa’s most developed economy, plagued with nationwide power cuts and high unemployment.

When the rules were announced four months ago, industry representatives protested vehemently, and recently said the visa requirements could cost the economy about 7.5 billion rand ($540 million) a year in lost tourism revenue.

But with 23 public higher education institutions, over the past few years South Africa has become Africa’s leader in the provision of quality higher education. 

It is estimated today that for every 12 students that enter South Africa, one goes overseas. Foreign students, especially from Africa, have become bread and butter for South Africa’s universities and the economy of, especially, the country’s richest province Gauteng.

Since 2007, there has been an 8% increase of international students studying in South Africa; almost 18% of all African students studying out of their home country are in South Africa.

But the harsh rules have been seen as a sign of a broader, and more worrying trend being exhibited by President Jacob Zuma’s government, one of increased securitisation and paranoia – and extending into the belligerence displayed by the Zuma administration against the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Bashir baggage
In June, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir – wanted by the ICC on war crimes charges – visited South Africa for an African Union meeting, and flew out of the country against a court order for his arrest, triggering a flurry of grandstanding from the Zuma administration and threats to pull out of the Rome Statute.

But such measures only end up shooting oneself in the foot.

It’s the same case in Zimbabwe, which is trying to jump-start an economy facing deflation – data from NKC Economics shows the country suffered the deepest deflation in the world in September – and massive job cuts, but has stuck to a 2007 law that compels foreign firms to cede 51% of shares to local partners, a move that Mugabe said would benefit Zimbabwe’s majority black population disadvantaged by colonial rule.

But in July, Desire Sibanda, the secretary for economic planning and investment promotion, made a rare criticism of the policy, saying a new wave of potential foreign investors had shunned Zimbabwe due to the laws.

Meanwhile in Kenya, after al-Shabaab terrorists killed 67 people in 2013 at Westgate mall, Nairobi, the government’s reaction was to round up people of Somali origin and detain them at a stadium, a move that was criticised for being excessive and ineffective in fighting terrorism, and probably having the very opposite effect it was intended to have by increasing feelings of profiling, grievance – and even radicalisation.

When al-Shabaab struck again in April 2015, this time at a college in Garissa, killing 148, the government now announced they would build a wall along the notoriously porous 700-kilometre Kenya-Somalia border.

Groundbreaking on the wall was done a few months ago; now, reports from the area indicate that the National Youth Service staff hired to build the wall are threatening to go on strike over unpaid salaries.

Kenya’s problem with security has always been linked to corruption, and having disgruntled workers at the borderlands is a security risk if there ever was one – much worse than not building the wall at all.

Still, not all countries throw worse decisions after bad ones – some are able to pause and reflect, and turn it around for their benefit.

After the 2002 bombings at a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, tourist visitors to the island declined sharply, which hit the economy hard coming just a few years after the 1998 Asian financial crisis. The Indonesian government had to devalue the rupiah drastically from an exchange rate of Rp2,200/$1 to Rp7,500 /$1.

‘Our Loss is Your Gain’
But that had the effect of making tourist services cheaper for foreigners visiting the island. This was even utilised as a marketing platform, with the local government carrying the slogan, ‘Our Loss is Your Gain’, and the total number of arrivals increased significantly.

Closer home, Zambia is currently battling a drastic slide in the country’s currency, which has lost 45% of its value this year. It’s battering the economy badly, but so far authorities have resisted giving in to panic by restricting foreign currency controls, although they have vaguely threatened to do so.

Zambia would do well to look to the Bali model and promote tourism at a time when its main forex earner – copper – has shed 20% of its price in the global markets.

Though tourism contributes only around 5% of Zambia’s GDP, its significant world class tourism attractions including the Victoria Falls to the south and 19 national game parks strewn around the country, are making it an increasingly important foreign exchange earner.

The Zambezi river circuit is particularly attractive for adventure seeking, thrill tourists; it already has operators offering river boarding, whitewater rafting, kayaking and bungee jumping.

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