South Africa’s Xenophobic Turn May Drive Away Foreign Scholars

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Vice-chancellors must challenge populist ideas around who belongs to the nation and whether equity goals can end at its borders, says

Top South African universities market themselves as centres of global excellence. An international staff profile speaks to such ambitions and these universities have always hired a fair share of staff from neighbouring African countries, as well as from further afield.

In the Faculty of Humanities where I work, the staff body is extremely diverse, with colleagues from the US, Europe, Australia, Canada, Latin America and India, as well as elsewhere in Africa. Many were trained overseas and decided to make a home for themselves and their families in South Africa. Some, like myself, left jobs in the Global North to work and live here.

But the requirements to internationalise must be carefully balanced with more pressing demands to socially and racially transform.

Certainly, since the student movements of 2015-2016, the pressure to demonstrate active steps towards transformation has increased. Many measures are in place, including hiring more black staff. But international staff – even if black or of colour – do not “count” towards equity goals.

It is increasingly hard to make the case to hire foreign over local staff. Indeed, it is only legally possible to do so when a hiring committee can absolutely show that no local candidate fully meets the given job specifications. But even when that case is made, foreign hires then find themselves mired in a series of Kafkaesque processes that can endure for the next decade of their lives.

Visa processes have always been cumbersome and chaotic in South Africa, but there is no question that they are systematically getting worse.

For instance, both students and staff require their overseas educational qualifications to be vetted by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA).

This used to be fairly straightforward, but lately it is anyone’s guess when SAQA will deliver on this paid-for service.

Maybe months, maybe more. In the meantime, no visa application can be made.

The visa application process itself seems straightforward. VFS Global, which manages it for the Department of Home Affairs, stipulates a set of forms and provides a checklist of supporting documentation – including a police clearance certificate, a letter of appointment and a case made by human resources, as well as the SAQA evaluation. Yet the application process takes six months, if you are lucky – and its outcomes seem increasingly arbitrary.

Last year, VFS staff told me that 90 per cent of critical skills visa applications had been rejected, and it has become commonplace for academics to be rejected once, if not twice, by Home Affairs.

The grounds tend to be entirely spurious – false accusations that documents are missing or claims that not enough of a case has been made to demonstrate the “critical skills” in question. Flouting its own rules, Home Affairs even rejects applicants whose skills have been vetted by national bodies such as SAQA, by prominent academic institutions such as the Human Sciences Research Council, or even by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Once a visa application is rejected, an applicant has 10 days to appeal. The verdict could easily be another rejection, after which the applicant has one last chance to appeal.

This entire process, then, is ultimately a test of endurance – financial as much as psychological. As well as bearing the exorbitant cost of the visas themselves, many applicants are also compelled to hire private immigration lawyers – for in the region of ZAR 20,000 (£920) – to help with appeals. Not surprisingly, many opt out after the first or second rejection. Remember that while waiting for a visa process to conclude, you cannot legally work or earn in the country.

The insecurity doesn’t end there for the lucky few who ultimately secure a critical skills visa (and it is entirely a matter of luck). The visa needs to be renewed every five years until an applicant qualifies to apply for permanent residency. Sometimes renewal applications disappear or are stalled or even rejected. Visas for family members, including minor children, are frequently denied.

Universities provide minimal practical or financial support to surmount such hurdles. Local staff tend to be ignorant or unsympathetic, while vice-chancellors don’t see these as issues worth championing in the public sphere, notwithstanding their loud commitments to internationalisation.

Foreign staff often find themselves reliant on information-sharing with others in the same position.

It goes without saying that the current political climate of xenophobia is feeding into such apathy. Many South Africans – and foreigners – labour under the illusion that it is easy to secure the right to work in this country, and outside university walls there is a growing clamour for barring foreigners.

Although the worst of this xenophobia is directed at precarious – and lower-skilled – workers, it most affects skilled migrants who are black and African, and who face greater – and more humiliating – forms of red tape than white migrants do.

South African vice-chancellors must recognise that it makes little sense to not treat the inclusion of other Africans as part of a South African mandate around equity and transformation. But, more than that, they must challenge narrow nationalist – and, worse, populist – ideas around who belongs to the nation and whether equity goals can end at its borders.

Universities are well placed to engage the public on these issues. And it is only by openly tackling the xenophobia that has taken hold of the country, from the top of the political class to the streets, that the situation can be addressed.

Srila Roy is professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in South African newspaper Daily Maverick.

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