A sordid state of Affairs
Department’s desperate need to contract VFS ensures it remains dysfunctional
IN DECEMBER 2018, the Department of Home Affairs took the decision to extend its contract with Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) for a further 24 months, effective January 1 this year.
The Home Affairs Parliamentary Committee criticised the department for failing to follow its recommendations against extending VFS’s contract and, during a meeting in March with the department, called on Home Affairs Minister Siyabonga Cwele to review the contract.
The committee believed that the department deliberately created a monopolised visa process.
In order to understand the role of foreign-owned VFS within South Africa’s immigration landscape, it is instructive to recall the reasons the company was first contracted to process visa and permit applications.
In May 2010, by decree of then interim Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, all decisions on immigration applications submitted within South Africa were centralised at a securitised adjudication hub at head office in Pretoria.
Until then, all visa applications had been processed at regional and district offices.
The decree was made out of sheer necessity. The department had reached a saturation point with corrupt practices. Syndicates from Nigeria, Pakistan and China were working directly out of some of these offices. Home Affairs officials were routinely bribed with Kentucky Fried Chicken and CocaCola, influencing the outcome of countless temporary residence, work and business visa applications. Rather than fabricate permits, officials simply issued visas that had not gone through compliance processes. The patronage chewed away at adjudication systems, leaving South Africa’s population register adulterated and in tatters.
Having previously served as foreign affairs minister, Dlamini Zuma was deeply sensitised to the scourge of corruption that had frittered away international confidence in South Africa’s national documents. These passports had been found in the possession of dead Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, in shoes exported to Cameroon, in the possession of Pakistani travellers and in other nefarious places.
The British government, in particular, had exerted ongoing pressure on the South African government to have the issuance of passport documents securitised, and imposed strict visa requirements on South African passport holders on July 1, 2009.
The 2010 World Cup was fast approaching – Dlamini-Zuma had to strike, and she did so with one fell swoop. All visa and permit applications would be adjudicated at head office in Pretoria. Truckloads of permit applications began arriving at head office. As a consequence, between 60% and 70% of applications submitted from 2010 until early 2011 disappeared.
Meanwhile, VFS had been managing visa and permit application delivery in pilot schemes at South African missions abroad, after entering into a contract with Home Affairs in October 2010.
By December 2013, the department’s near-paralysis forced it to contract VFS to handle applications made in South Africa too. Without VFS, Home Affairs would have collapsed under the sheer weight of its inability to manage its front counters.
VFS, though not perfect, has saved Home Affairs from internal combustion. But it has also created an unwarranted moat between members of the public and home affairs management.
It has become almost impossible for applicants in terms of the immigration act to communicate directly with the department.
VFS charges a fee of R1350 per application or appeal.
This is an unlawful, non-regulated fee that foreigners are obliged to pay, even in order to gain access to administrative justice.
Yet Home Affairs has confirmed that VFS’s fee was agreed between the two parties. Then Home Affairs minister Gigaba’s spokesperson, Mayihlome Tshwete, told media: “The company charges clients a management fee, and also what is due to the state. Money to the state is collected by the company electronically and paid to the national revenue account. What companies charge clients has been agreed between the department and VFS.”
Chairman of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Committee Hlomani Chauke remarked during its meeting on March 12 that the lack of a pricing policy had resulted in exorbitant pricing of visas. This, and the monopolisation of the visa processing service, should be referred to the Zondo Commission, he said.
In a recent article, South African writer Jonny Steinberg posited that, since ceasing to function in 2010, Home Affairs “cynically fights to remain dysfunctional”. The reality in which we find ourselves is that VFS has saved a department from implosion, and now it is reaping the financial rewards of State failure.
It has become almost impossible for (immigration) applicants to communicate directly with Home Affairs.
The Department of Home Affairs has outsourced visa facilitation services to a foreign-owned company, effectively creating a monopolised process to obtain access to the country, says the writer. Above are aircraft and airport staff at OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, a primary point of entry.