JOHANNESBURG (IPS)–After years of consultation with labor unions, business organizations and academicians, a new Immigration Act was unveiled late in 2002 and immediately stirred a controversy.
This replacement for the notorious Aliens Control Act, which for years was used to block Black African immigration, had the support of South Africa’s largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
The new policy is backed by unionists because of its stringent–critics say draconian–bureaucratic requirements intended to protect South African workers from losing their jobs to immigrants.
COSATU is closely aligned with the ruling political party of President Thabo Mbeki, the African National Congress (ANC).
Under the new system, the Department of Home Affairs must create and enforce a quota system for immigration after consultation with the departments of industry, trade and labor.
Foreign workers must obtain certification, requiring another bureaucratic maze for immigrants to endure.
The business community and immigrant advocacy groups say the new law stifles economic growth because of what they say is an inaccurate assumption that South African workers must be protected from foreigners.
One economist complained, “Current policy assumes that every job occupied by a non-South African means one job less for a South African; in other words, that the labor market is zero-sum. At all levels of the labor market, from the least to the most highly skilled, foreigners are being denied temporary work permits or are meeting with obstructions on the basis of the unproven assumption that in every case their mere presence would disadvantage South Africans. But managed immigration and migration can be used to stimulate economic growth and create jobs for South Africans.”
Business analysts say South Africa suffers from a shortage of skilled, readily employable people who have the talents required by employers. This shortage has been exacerbated by AIDS, which has reduced the availability of skilled workers. A COSATU report indicated that a quarter of the labor force constituting its core constituency as a workers’ federation is HIV-positive in the central Gauteng province, where industrial parks ring metropolitan Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Government figures put the prevalence of HIV among adults in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, the location of the key port of Durban and Indian Ocean tourist resorts, at over 30 percent.
In answer to South Africa’s growing workers’ shortages, the South African Chamber of Business has called for an open-door policy toward immigration that is driven by market needs.
Underlying the new immigration bill is the belief that skilled immigration takes jobs away from locally skilled people.
A shortage of skilled workers is worsened by emigration. The trend of skilled White professionals leaving the country began in the mid-1980s, when apartheid-era authorities were unable to suppress Black township uprisings as they had during earlier protests. The outflow increased during the transition to democracy in the early 1990s.
Because Black education was deliberately substandard during apartheid, no pool of skilled Black workers and managers was immediately available to replace emigrating Whites. Today, immigration reform advocates couple the need for improved training and education with a short-term open door policy toward accepting skilled foreigners.
There is a “desperate” need for more foreign teachers in the nation’s schools and universities, an education ministry report disclosed.
A government publication noted, “Immigration policy is designed primarily to attract skilled migrants. The country is currently experiencing a brain drain mainly to Western countries.”
A Microsoft Corporation study estimated that the shortage of information technology workers in South Africa is between 30,000 and 200,000.
Emigration has drained key professions of experienced workers, adding to the urgency of facilitating immigration to fill vacancies. Emigration is highest in education (34 percent of recorded emigrants), engineering (29 percent), accountancy (24 percent), and medical and dental professions (13 percent).
Unrestricted illegal migration became such a crisis in post-apartheid South Africa that a 1999 white paper on international migration recommended giving immigration authorities sweeping powers of detention and called for the creation of a virtual gulag of detention facilities for illegal aliens.
The Immigration Service was to be given the power to detain suspected illegal aliens for up to 48 hours without a warrant. Meanwhile, legitimate business investors and prospective workers could enter without a visa if they could post a bond with a credit card.
Another problem to be addressed is the requirement that immigrant business people must invest a minimum of $167,000 to obtain a permanent residence permit. The labor unions are silent on this matter because their membership is not composed of entrepreneurs.
However, the business community notes the high investment requirement relegates small and medium entrepreneurs to temporary residency permit status, impeding their success and contribution to the economy. A Southern African Migration Project report found that foreign entrepreneurs create an average of 4.1 jobs.