Behind the public spat between South Africa’s government ministers

Tourists from Las Vegas enjoy an elephant ride in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Johannesburg. South Africa’s tourism minister says new visa regulations are hurting the industry. Reuters/Antony Kaminju

The fallout over South African’s new visa regulations has taken a public turn, with two government ministers clashing on the airwaves.

The regulations have been criticised by many as sabotaging the country’s vital tourism industry. The industry is the third largest contributor to the country’s GDP. Last year South Africa received more than nine million international visitors.

Last week Tourism minister Derek Hanekom vented his frustration at the recent visa regulations imposed by his Home Affairs counterpart Malusi Gigaba. Both ministers are prominent members of the governing African National Congress.

Conflicting interests collide

Hanekom told popular talk station Radio 702 that the new regulations had caused a “worrying drop” in tourism to the country. The new rules require visitors to appear in person to apply for visas and submit digital photographs and fingerprints. Further regulations implemented from June require parents to produce unabridged birth certificates for children they are travelling with, who are under 18. This is in addition to passports.

A few hours later, Gigaba hit back, saying the new regulations were designed to combat child trafficking and that tourism profits should not come at the expense of protection for children. He also suggested the tourism industry and ministry were looking for others to blame for their inability to effectively market the country and grow tourism.

The seemingly strange conflict pits two government ministers, who ostensibly should be allies, against one another as adversaries. It raises the important question of why South Africa’s government isn’t on the same page regarding the new visa regulations.

The controversy is indicative of the banal demands of governing. A key source of the disagreement is summed up in the famous insight about policy making by Rufus Miles, the former American official, who stated:

Where you stand [on an issue] depends on where you sit [in government].

Gigaba’s mission at Home Affairs is to regulate migration to ensure security, promote development and fulfil the country’s international obligations. According to its website , the department controls, regulates the movement of people through ports of entry.

From the department’s perspective, the new regulations assist in monitoring who comes in and out of the country more accurately. In addition, South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Protocol to prevent and punish trafficking of people, especially women and children. This international protocol calls on state parties to combat child trafficking.

The new regulations apparently allow Home Affairs to abide by the protocol more effectively. They therefore make sense from Gigaba’s perspective.

South Africa’s tourism minister Derek Hanekom says new visa regulations hurt the sector. EPA/Jon Hrusa

Hanekom’s Department of Tourism, on the other hand, has a different mandate. Its purpose, according to its website is to create conditions for the sustainable growth and development of tourism in South Africa.

One of the crucial aspects of developing tourism in the country is ensuring procedures to enter the country are manageable and the rules transparent. From the tourism ministry’s perspective, perception matters as much as reality.

And Hanekon’s view is that the new entry regulations are opaque and onerous and have seriously impeded his ministry’s ability to accomplish its objective of promoting tourism.

Ministerial myopia

In sum, where the ministers stand on the new regulations depends on where they sit in government. The inter-ministerial conflict has erupted precisely because Ministers Gigaba and Hanekom both want to carry out the objectives of their departments.

That this argument has now gone public is “unfortunate”, according Gigaba, but not unsurprising. Hanekom’s constituency has vocally criticised the new visa regulations for months, creating growing pressure on him to defend the interests of tourism.

South Africa’s home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba. Reuters/Juda Ngwenya

A tried and tested method of winning bureaucratic battles is to harness the power of the public. Hanekom’s disagreement with Home Affairs may provide him with the valuable political leverage afforded by public opinion when the issue of visa regulations is next discussed in cabinet.

Because the objectives of various governmental ministries and agencies sometimes compete, inter-departmental tensions are not rare. Nonetheless, when these tensions burst into public view they are fodder for media scrutiny because they provide a window into the often untidy process of policy formulation.

The American General Stanley McChrystal’s public and harsh criticism of the Obama administration’s strategy to stabilise Afghanistan in 2010 is a dramatic example of intra-governmental disputes going public. McChrystal was subsequently relieved of duty.

Finding common ground

While ministers pay close attention to their departmental interests, President Jacob Zuma must pay attention to the broader interests of South Africa. What is now needed is firm and clear guidance by the Presidency to resolve this conflict in the cabinet.

During interviews both ministers said the an inter-ministerial committee was now addressing the issue of the new regulations. The committee will hopefully assist Zuma in weighing the competing concerns of his two ministers. The President should forge a solution that satisfies both cabinet members and is best for South Africa’s national interest.

Such a solution would ease and clarify the process by which potential travellers can obtain the proper documentation to visit South Africa. It would also need to effectively keep South African borders secure and prevent the scourge of child trafficking.

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