The Department of Home Affairs says it is in the process of simplifying South Africa’s visa regime through visa waiver agreements with identified countries and issuing long-term multiple entry visas to promote migration and tourism into South Africa and movement within the continent.
In the department’s latest annual performance plan for 2022/2023, it noted that technology will be placed at the heart of operations through the implementation of the e-Visa system by making it easy and secure to enter and depart South Africa.
“The tourist module of the e-Visa has been activated in 14 countries thus far, including China, India, Kenya and Nigeria. As the President announced in the 2022 State of the Nation Address, the Department of Home Affairs will continue to streamline and modernise the visa application process to make it easier to travel to South Africa for the purposes of tourism, business and work.”
The e-Visa system allows tourists and visitors to South Africa to apply for their visas online. The applications are sent to a central adjudication hub for approval while applicants sit in the comfort of their homes. This will result in the issuing of virtual visas.
“This paperless virtual visa will combat visa fraud and open South Africa as a desirable destination. The e-Visa system will have huge tourism growth implications for the country. The Department of Home Affairs will continue to streamline or simplify the visa process to facilitate and attract direct investment.”
While the department confirmed that an expansion of the scheme is on the cards over and above the 14 countries available at the end of March 2022, it noted that work still needs to be done to ‘stabilise’ the current system.
“The stabilisation of the system and further integration with other key DHA systems such as the Biometric Movement Control System (BMCS) is a necessary intervention before the further rollout of the system to other countries can be considered. An efficient and secure system will improve service delivery, security and turnaround times for issuance of visas to deserving clients.”
Biometric Movement Control System (BMCS)
The department is in the process of developing a Biometric Movement Control System (BMCS) which will enable the capturing of fingerprint and facial biometric data of all travellers who enter or exit South Africa.
This will be built onto the existing live capture platform and be rolled out at 34 ports of entry across the country, it said.
While the list of identified ports of entry is subject to change, the system is expected to roll out at the major airport and land borders including:
- OR Tambo International Airport;
- Cape Town International Airport;
- King Shaka International Airport;
- Lanseria International Airport;
- Beit Bridge;
- Lebombo (including KM 7 and 4);
- Maseru Bridge;
E-gates and trusted passenger system
The department is currently piloting e-gates at Cape Town International Airport aimed at improving passenger processing times and experience while maintaining the security and integrity of the country’s borders.
The goal is to expand these e-gates to the country’s other major international airports alongside the introduction of a new passenger name record system.
The passenger name record system will be used to identify unknown threats based on passenger profiles, and the advanced passenger processing system is used to identify known suspects – for example, those on stop and watchlists.
Tech expansion necessary for tourism
Marc Wachsberger, managing director of the Capital Hotels and Apartments, said the expansion of the e-Visa scheme is necessary to help return tourism in the country to pre-pandemic levels.
“The Department of Home Affairs has been talking about an e-Visa system for years, and although it has been rolled out in 14 countries, potential tourists in the rest of the world still have to visit a South African consulate, embassy or trade representative to fill out and submit forms and photographs,”
“This often means that they would have to incur travel time and costs just to apply for a visa, and then again to collect it, if they live somewhere other than the South African representative office’s location – adding an often insurmountable obstacle to their travel plans,” he said.
“Mostly, they’ll just look for somewhere else to go, that either doesn’t have visa requirements for their home country, or that has a quick and effective online visa application system, followed by a virtual visa delivery.”
With South African travellers themselves hobbled by onerous visa requirements for many countries, based on the historic frequency of travel document fraud, a digital visa system would also contribute to eliminating fraudulent travel documents, making sure that only people who have actually complied with the country’s port entry requirements are able to enter.
Wachsberger welcomed the current piloting of e-gates at Cape Town International Airport that are aimed at improving passenger processing times, and their first experience of South Africa, but urged the Department of Home Affairs to pick up the pace of digitalisation across all elements of its interactions with citizens, and with visitors to the country.
“The last two years have shown us just how quickly shifts to virtual ways of working can happen if there’s a strong will for it to happen, so there really is no excuse for the slow progress in adopting digital solutions for visas and other travel documents,” he said.
“South Africa is lagging its counterparts in Africa when it comes to digital travel documents, and we’re going to continue to lose valuable tourism revenue to other nations unless the Department of Home Affairs accelerates the roll-out of its pilot projects. Failing to do so compromises the future of the country’s tourism industry, and indeed its economy.”