DEAR minister Gigaba, I was in transit through Heathrow on my way to Washington last week when my boarding pass generated a loud bleep at the boarding gate. This resulted in a "random special security check". It’s odd that I’ve been selected for a similar "random" security inspection on every flight to the US that I can remember in the past 10 years. US immigration is clearly problematic. Unfortunately, SA has also had immigration problems of late.

A friend of mine has been living in SA and paying taxes for six years. She applied for her visa renewal a year ago. Ten months after the application, she had to rush back to her home country for a funeral. On exit from SA, her passport was stamped "undesirable".

I recently spoke to a company that is considering halting its planned expansion because it cannot get its skilled personnel into the country. Another large company struggled for six months to renew the visa of a key manager. A third company that is looking to invest is also being deterred by the visa problem. In each case, the company in question employs at least 1000 people in the country.

SA cannot hope to be the world’s gateway into Africa unless it becomes easier for foreign companies to bring in skilled personnel.

I recently listened to Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann’s incisive assessment of the causes of SA’s frail growth rate. He had interesting data, but the ultimate diagnosis was not new. Exports are hampered by a lack of skills and labour market rigidities. Last week’s release of the larger than expected August trade and budget deficits highlights the problem.

Immigration constraints should be loosened to attract much-needed skilled workers to facilitate the growth in industries that can employ unskilled workers. But, instead, SA’s immigration restrictions have gone from awful to horrific in the past six months.

As public enterprises minister you have often stated your commitment to job creation. These immigration requirements will do nothing to create jobs and could lead to job losses.

SA cannot hope to be the world’s gateway into Africa unless it becomes easier for foreign companies to bring in skilled personnel.

There is a widespread myth, ironically shared by unions and right-wing parties around the world, that immigrants displace local labour. This may be the case in unskilled jobs, where the increase in supply suppresses local wages. But in a skills-short economy like ours, skilled immigrants create jobs for unskilled workers. Studies show that for every skilled job, a further two to several hundred unskilled jobs are created in SA.

Ann Bernstein of the Centre for Development & Enterprise points out that "immigrant entrepreneurs create new wealth. Each new skilled immigrant will create jobs for South Africans simply by going about [his] business, buying goods and services and paying tax."

Therefore, minister, we need to draw up a list of scarce skills and embrace anyone who can fill this deficit.

Your home affairs department says all SA’s new visa requirements can be found elsewhere in the world. But that misses the point. We need to do what is optimal for SA’s long-term growth and job creation.

These regulations may have been designed to limit the entry of criminals, illegal immigrants and the unskilled. However, the biggest impact will be on skilled, legal immigrants who follow the rules.

While US customs may insist on trawling through my underwear, and though their immigration system may be onerous, they still allow the best and brightest from the rest of the world into their country. As Hausmann pointed out, if the US had SA’s immigration policies, Harvard would not be Harvard, because 75% of the staff in his faculty are foreigners.

Minister, if you are at all concerned about raising SA’s growth rate from its current pathetic pace, these restrictions need to be quickly revisited.


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