Into the Hot Seat

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South Africa’s new Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom had barely been in the job for 10 weeks when Business Traveller Africa magazine managed to secure an exclusive one-on-one interview with him. Renowned South African television news anchor and consulting editor Jeremy Maggs sat down at Tourism House in Pretoria with Hanekom, and pressed him on the controversial proposed changes to the country’s immigration regulations.

Derek Hanekom is no stranger to South African politics. An ANC struggle veteran, he previously held the positions of Minister of Land Affairs and Agriculture, and Minister of Science and Technology. That being said, he probably wasn’t prepared for the storm he would walk into, once he was appointed as Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s successor following May’s general election.

Just weeks into the job, Hanekom watched as newly-appointed Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba outlined the ‘Immigration Regulations of 2014’, which had come into effect on 26 May. Gigaba went on to say that the amendments were in the interests of South Africa’s security.

What quickly became clear was that the South African government was implementing these amendments in an effort to combat the illegal trafficking of people into and out of the country. Whilst that remains a noble cause, the local tourism industry very quickly picked up on the implications and the impact these changes could have on their industry.

Of particular concern to all those with a vested interest in South African tourism were two of the many proposed changes to the immigration regulations – namely the new requirement for an unabridged birth certificate for travelling minors, as well as the provision for in-person collection of biometric data for those needing visas to travel to South Africa. These two requirements, it was identified, ran the risk of having a significant detrimental impact on tourism to South Africa.

According to the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), both it and other associations in the form of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA), the Airline Association of Southern Africa (AASA), and the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), have attempted to engage Gigaba and have the proposed changes deferred for 12 months. They also claim to have asked Hanekom to intervene on their behalf.

“In a way it was a baptism of fire,” said Hanekom. “Suddenly, upon commencing this portfolio, I was confronted with this thing. It is a matter of great concern, but I immediately met with the TBCSA and a group of affected stakeholders, before meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs.”

What followed was a joint statement issued by both Hanekom and Gigaba, which drew widespread criticism from the associations already mentioned, because the status quo and 1 October implementation date remained in place.

“That press statement very importantly said that this was the beginning of negotiations, and that we would have to monitor the situation and observe the extent to which the concessions (that were made in the meeting) had reduced the problem,” he said. “If not, the doors are open. My lines of communication with the industry are strong, and I will keep it that way.”

That being said, there does appear to be a limit to the influence Hanekom is able to exert on Gigaba, and it’s clearly an issue that the Minister of Tourism has to tread lightly with, if he is going to realise any benefit for his industry.

“I have expressed my view, but I really do not want to get into what is easily called a ‘public spat’,” said Hanekom. “We’ve had a meeting, they put their position on the table, and we put our position on the table. But, it’s very important that the Minister should hear from key industry stakeholders, so that it’s not just the Minister of Tourism that is voicing concerns, but that it’s the industry itself that has a voice.”

Unfortunately, according to the likes of ASATA CEO Otto de Vries, that voice isn’t being heard by Minister Gigaba, and Hanekom realises that he has a role to play in bridging the divide.

“It’s not my primary portfolio, but it does impact on my portfolio, which is exactly why we have this open line of communication,” he said. “But let’s just understand the distinctions between the portfolios and the potential areas of tension, which always exist. Here you’ve got the Department of Home Affairs that has to safeguard our borders and has to make an effective contribution toward child trafficking, for example. Our discussion at the moment is to say, ‘well, we respect your primary mandate, but can it not be done in such a way that at the very least minimises the negative impact on tourism?’”

So, what is the way forward?

“We’ll hear from the industry,” says Hanekom. “The industries are talking directly and sending their concerns directly to the Minister of Home Affairs, which is good. Some of it will have to be monitored in practice. We use the example of China, because that is our biggest emerging growth market. Being so geographically large, what you need at the moment is an urgent solution. That’s because only two places currently issue these visas that you now have to apply for in person – Beijing and Shanghai. Some people may have to take a three-hour flight to Beijing. That is accepted by the Department of Home Affairs, and we’re saying, ‘let’s move very rapidly to a situation where there are far more visa facilitation centres.’”

Whilst there’s clearly some action taking place, the concern from the South African tourism industry is that the clock is ticking and the country is potentially losing visitors every day, whilst these changes remain in place.

“They indicated they could do it within months, so the onus is on us to give them information as quickly as possible, knowing that there aren’t unlimited resources,” said Hanekom. “We’re not going to place hundreds of visa centres in the country, but if there are going to be a dozen or so, they need to be placed most strategically. We think we can do that in a matter of weeks. They say, and I can’t comment on it, that they can have these visa facilitation centres in place within months. The industry is saying, ‘can we not have a moratorium until such time as these things are in place?’ I think the industry should exercise its right to continue their lobbying with the Minister responsible for these things.”

An interesting parting shot from Hanekom, particularly with regards whose responsibility it is to listen to South Africa’s tourism industry stakeholders.

What isn’t in question is just how big this issue is and its potential to impact hugely on South Africa’s appeal as an international tourist destination. The industry has a critical and worrying few months ahead, with Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba central to the issue, whilst much will still be expected of Hanekom to fight the fight for his industry.

Dylan Rogers