Dream killers: How South Africa’s flawed visa process frustrates Nigerians
Allegations of incessant visa denials to Nigerians by the South Africa High Commission have continued to mount. ALFRED OLUFEMIwrites on the phenomenon and how it has cost Nigerians inestimable opportunities
Abiodun Ahamba, an Ibadan-based nurse had a long-held aspiration to migrate to the United States to practise her profession.
She was close to achieving her lofty ambition and had spent months preparing for the National Council Licensure Examination, one of the prerequisites to qualify her to practise as a certified nurse in the US.
The only challenge was that the global exam has its only Africa centre, where it can be written, in South Africa.
Others, PUNCH Investigations gathered, are spread across Europe, Asia and other continents.
Like many of her colleagues, Ahamba, 30, opted for the South Africa centre due to its proximity to Nigeria and was billed to sit for the exam on July 26, 2022.
To facilitate entry into South Africa, she submitted her visa application alongside the original copy of her international passport to the South Africa High Commission on May 11 and was optimistic that she would get favourable consideration.
She filed her application through Visa Facilitation Service Global, a multinational company that serves as an intermediary between applicants and the commission.
VFS Global, according to its website, is an outsourcing and technology services company for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide and manages visa and passport issuance-related administrative and non-discretionary tasks.
As Ahamba waited with bated breath and watched as weeks rolled into months for her fate to be determined by the South Africa High Commission, the deadline for the exam elapsed.
Not long after, her visa application was declined, thus, putting a death knell on the exam.
While speaking to PUNCH Investigations, Ahamba, who was seething with rage, said she was miffed that despite presenting all necessary valid documents that indicated the purpose of her visa application and its expediency, the embassy held on to her passport without giving any reason until she lost the chance to write the qualifying exam.
The woman said she travelled to Abuja because the commission closed its visa offices in Lagos and Port Harcourt at the time.
She said, “The trip from Ibadan to Abuja to apply for the visa was so stressful. The letter containing details of the exam was attached to my application. The recruitment agency, Adevia Health, wrote a letter informing them that the organisation will accommodate me throughout my stay.”
Not only was Ahamba denied a visa, but the South Africa High Commission also failed to return her international passport, prompting her to write an official letter on September 11, to withdraw her application and have her passport returned so that she can apply to other eligible countries for the exam.
Ahamba told PUNCH Investigations that her passport was returned two weeks after, within which time, the Authorisation To Test, a document usually issued after the NCLEX registration to qualify a candidate for the exam within three months, had expired.
A distraught Ahamba said she would have to pay $200 (approximately N90, 000) to get another ATT.
The nurse said her colleagues that applied to the Philippines and United Kingdom were lucky as they were issued visas within two weeks.
“Even if they were refused, their passports would have been returned in good time so that they can find alternatives,” the nurse said.
South Africa Visa bottleneck
For quite some time now, obtaining a South African visa has become increasingly difficult for Nigerians and the processes involved could be metaphorically likened to a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
Visa applications, PUNCH Investigations gathered, are met with delayed responses, by which time, in most cases, the purpose of the visit would have elapsed.
This narrative aptly captured Ahamba’s case and that of others, who have allegedly been unfairly treated.
Based on PUNCH Investigations’ findings, the South Africa visa application website clearly stated that it officially takes between 10 to 15 days for a visitor’s visa application to be processed.
The same term was highlighted on the website of the VFS, as it stated that the timeline given by the South Africa High Commission in Nigeria for the processing of each application is a minimum of six working days.
However, based on the experiences of applicants, upon payment of a non-refundable fee of N32, 671, they are informed that it would take a minimum of 15 working days for the processing to be completed.
Payment of the said sum, it was discovered, does not still guarantee a response within the stipulated 15 working days.
Saidu Shuaib, another nurse meant to write the NCLEX in South Africa, told PUNCH Investigations that he was denied a visa twice for what he described as flimsy excuses.
The 37-year-old, who has since vowed not to apply again, revealed that the poor welfare condition in the government-owned hospital where he worked, informed his decision to seek greener pastures abroad.
Recounting how he was repeatedly denied a visa, Shuaib said he filed his first application on January 31 and got a rejection letter 11 days after.
According to the notice of decision he was issued and which was made available to PUNCH Investigations, the embassy claimed that the invitation letter he submitted was either not visible or verifiable.
The claim was countered by Shuaib, who explained that the recruitment agency, Adevia Health, which issued the letter of invitation, is a specialist healthcare recruitment agency that has been in operation for 20 years and has over 15 functional offices worldwide.
Although shocked at the response of the South Africa High Commission, a resilient Shuaib filed another application but this time, the response took longer than the first.
“The second one was submitted on April 20, and I got a response on June 16,” he revealed.
The notice of decision sent to Shuaib this time stated that he was denied issuance because Adevia Health was not registered by relevant bodies.
“I spent over N92, 000 as visa processing fees. I paid over N57, 000 for the first one, while the second one cost not less than N35, 000,” he claimed.
The nurse has since resolved to shun South Africa and apply for a Philippine visa to write the exam.
“Some of my colleagues, who were also denied visas, are exploring the same option. Sometimes, when you apply to the South Africa High Commission, you would be told that your hotel reservation was not confirmed, meanwhile, people would have paid a huge amount of money to secure accommodation,” he alleged.
South Africa’s alleged flawed visa issuance system
While it may be understandable that some western countries have strict visa issuance policies against Africans, African countries are expected to have a relaxed visa policy for fellow Africans.
However, this development cannot be said of South Africa.
Before 2022, there have been several reports on how the country’s visa issuance system was discriminatory against African travellers, especially Nigerians.
Many alleged that the phenomenon could be part of tactics to prevent Nigerians from visiting the country and alluded to incessant and unwarranted xenophobic attacks carried out over the years.
Some travellers and intending travellers interviewed by PUNCH Investigations alleged that their applications were shabbily treated, thereby resulting in the loss of great opportunities.
The delay in visa issuance, it was gathered, has prevented many Nigerians from participating in international conferences that took place in South Africa over the years.
Down Syndrome Foundation, journalists not left out
In 2012, visa delay and denial led to a spat between the Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria and the South African government.
A delegation from DSFN, PUNCH Investigationsgathered, were denied entry visas on the allegation of possessing invalid Yellow Cards.
The card is proof of having been vaccinated against yellow fever, an acute viral haemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes.
The association’s national president, Mrs Rose Mordi, in a statement, alleged that the decision taken by the South Africa High Commission was “vindictive, callous and was seen by the foundation as a well thought-out act of stigmatization and discrimination against those with Down Syndrome and their carers.”
The foundation further stated, “This is not only an insult to our foundation but also the Federal Government of Nigeria.”
In 2018, several Nigerian journalists missed out on the African Investigative Journalism Conference that took place at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Their passports were withheld without any form of valid explanation offered and returned weeks after the event ended.
PUNCH Investigations gathered that the passport of the founder of Foundation for Investigative Journalism, Fisayo Soyombo, who was billed to speak at the conference, was withheld for weeks, even though he filed his visa application early enough.
Speaking about his experience, Soyombo said his passport was not returned in time for him to either make an alternative arrangement or know that he would not make the programme.
The renowned investigative journalist said he felt that the South Africa High Commission took the decision based on a piece he wrote in 2015, titled “South Africans have not wanted Nigerians.”
“I feel that they googled my name alongside South Africa and saw it, and that is why they did not give me the visa,” he added.
On how he felt about the development at the time, Soyombo said, “It was not a problem for me to deal with because they were going to benefit from my expertise if I had attended the conference. I was not personally hurt. I just felt they denied the participants the opportunity to benefit from what I had to share.”
Flawed e-visa system
In 2015, the African Union asked member countries to commit to abolishing visa requirements for all Africans by 2018.
However, South Africa, despite its alleged flawed issuance system, went a notch further to announce stricter conditions that were widely criticised.
One of them stipulated that a child travelling with both parents must have a copy of the birth certificate and some other documents containing details of the parents.
Also required was that children travelling with one parent or a guardian must provide a detailed document containing the identity of the absent parent, contact details of the absent parent and a court order granting full parental responsibilities and rights or legal guardianship in respect of the child.
In November 2019, the South Africa High Commission introduced an electronic visa application system.
The move was seen by many as geared towards rectifying the much-criticised visa issuance system.
By February 2022, the e-visa system passed the testing stage and as part of the first phase, South Africa listed 14 countries as eligible to apply.
According to information obtained from its website, passport holders from Cameroon, China, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uganda, can apply for visas online.
It also stated that the electronic system offers a simplified visa application and faster visa processing, adding that the system would among other things, “reduce administrative requirements and may make it easier for foreign investors to visit.”
PUNCH Investigations learnt that the new system was also aimed at breaking the intermediary role played by VFS centres.
A fallout of the e-visa process was that VFS centres in Lagos and Port Harcourt were stopped from processing visas, leaving the role solely for the Abuja office.
Ironically, based on PUNCH Investigations findings, the introduction of the e-visa, rather than improving the system, worsened it.
A Lagos-based travel agent, who chose to be identified as Daniel (to avoid being blacklisted), told our correspondent that the visa applications he filed for his clients have been pending on the e-visa platform.
He said, “With the e-visa, you don’t know your status. It would just keep popping up ‘awaiting justification’. When I submitted the applications online, the embassy confirmed the receipt but up till now, they have not replied.
“I am yet to get a reply to the one I applied for on March 30. I also submitted one in February and they have not sent back the application till now.”
The agent, who claimed to have over five years of working experience in travel and tourism visa applications, noted that a country like Kenya would reply to a visa application within three days with a positive verdict.
Our correspondent learnt that the consistent visa delays encountered on the South Africa e-visa website have led to a frosty relationship between Daniel and his clients
“I can’t tell my clients what is going on because they might not understand and would feel that since they have applied, they are meant to get a reply. Clients care only about getting a reply; be it positive or negative,” the agent added.
The embassy makes a U-turn
Amid the outcry over the difficulty in obtaining entry visas both online and in person, the South Africa High Commission announced that it had resumed visa issuance services in Lagos and Abuja.
Its Consul-General in Nigeria at the time, Darkey Africa, in an interview with a national daily (not PUNCH), confirmed the resumption.
He also advised all applicants to follow established guidelines as issued by the VFS centre on its website to submit applications.
It is worth noting that visa applications are not submitted directly to the South Africa High Commission, but through the VFS, which in turn, submits them to the Commission.
A statement issued in July and pasted at its VFS office in Lagos, read, “Effective July 13, 2022, our South Africa Visa Application centres in Lagos and Port Harcourt will resume services for all visa categories at the following operational timings (except all public holidays).”
However, when our correspondent visited the VFS office in Lagos, he learnt that the submission of the visa application had not come into effect.
The Africa Visa Openness Index, which is an analysis of data from the African Development Bank and the African Union and used to measure the extent to which African countries are open to visitors from other African countries, showed that South Africa ranked low among other top countries when it comes to visa openness.
The AVOI was also used to analyse visa requirements and costs, and to show countries on the continent that facilitate travel to their territories.
After putting the aforementioned factors into consideration, each country was then assigned a visa openness score and ranked accordingly on an annual basis, starting from 2016.
According to PUNCH Investigations’ analysis of the data released from 2016 to 2021, South Africa consistently scored below 0.33 out of 1.
In 2016 and 2017, for instance, the country maintained a score of 0.259. However, it hit an all-time high of 0.321 in 2021.
Further analysis showed that among the top ten economies in Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa maintained the fifth position.
For the six-year review, South Africa came under Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana, many of which scored between 0.38 and 0.87.
Taking a toll on businesses
PUNCH Investigations learnt that the delay and denial of visas by the South African Embassy has taken a negative toll on businesses, especially in the aviation sector.
For instance, Air Peace, one of Nigeria’s largest airlines, in a statement issued via its Twitter handle on August 8, 2022, announced the suspension of its flights to and from Johannesburg for 60 days, citing a drop in patronage and noting that Nigerians were finding it difficult to obtain a South Africa visa.
“We hereby inform the flying public that effective from August 22, 2022, our Johannesburg flight operations will be suspended till October 8, 2022.
“This development is regretted but has become inevitable due to the delayed issuance of South African visas to travellers, worsening forex crunch and the increasing cost of aviation fuel as well as its scarcity.
“However, having informed the South Africa High Commission in Lagos of the effects of difficulty in getting visas by Nigerians, which consequence is the abysmally low passenger loads on our flights to and from Johannesburg, we believe that the situation will have improved within the next 60 days, hence our willingness to resume operations on October 8, 2022.”
A visa-free Africa
In 2016, Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote revealed that he required 38 visas to travel within the African continent.
“Somebody like me, despite the size of our group, I need 38 visas to move around Africa. Yes, I’ve heard that they are going to do the (African) passport but you can see that there is still a little bit of resistance from other African leaders,” he said in an interview with CNBC Africa.
His claim put paid to assertions that African countries remain closed off to each other, thus, making travel within the continent difficult.
Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements and according to the African Union, Africans can only travel without a visa to just 22 per cent of African countries.
The restriction is noted to be more for Africans travelling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans.
This is even though the number of arrivals to the continent’s destinations (and especially intra-African flights) has shown the highest growth globally over the years, based on IATA, 2010 report.
In all, South Africa is constantly accused of exhibiting double standards when it comes to visa issuance.
The country has variously been accused by other African countries of being stiff with visa issuance but wholly welcoming to those from the western world.
Notably, citizens of only 15 African nations can travel to South Africa without a visa, while those from 28 European countries enjoy free entry.
African countries, based on AU’s “vision and roadmap for the next 50 years,” which was adopted by its 55 member states in 2013, were meant to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018.
Part of the roadmap is the Agenda 2063 flagship project, a blueprint and master plan to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.
The project aims to remove restrictions on Africans’ ability to travel, work and live within their continent.
The initiative, according to information on the AU website, “aims at transforming Africa’s laws, which remain generally restrictive on the movement of people despite political commitments to bring down borders with the view to promote the issuance of visas to enhance free movement of all African citizens in all African countries.”
It also stated that the free movement of persons in Africa is expected to boost “intra-Africa trade, commerce and tourism; facilitate labour mobility, intra-Africa knowledge and skills transfer; among other benefits.”
So far, Rwanda, Kenya, Namibia, Ghana, Mauritius and the Benin Republic have relaxed travel restrictions for other Africans and now offer visas on arrival or visits of up to 90 days with just a passport.
Recently, the Namibian and Botswana governments agreed to abolish the use of passports for travel between the two countries.
When this is finalised, citizens of the two countries will use identity cards as an entry requirement.
Still bent on achieving ease of travel among African countries, the Nigeria-South Africa Chamber of Commerce demanded a single African passport and a free visa to ensure the success of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area agreement.
The agreement was brokered by the AU and signed by 44 of its 55 member states in Kigali, Rwanda on March 21, 2018.
As of August, the only country yet to sign the agreement is Eritrea.
NSACC President, Mr Osayande Giwa-Osagie, while speaking during the chamber’s September Breakfast Forum in 2021, noted that the AfCFTA would boost intra-African trade by 22 per cent.
“Given the importance of the free movement of people, there is a need for a free visa in Africa and a single Africa passport. While the implementation would help boost the Nigerian economy, the impact would be limited if there is no free movement of people,” he said.
“Govt must stand up for its citizens”
On what the government needs to do to address the visa issuance imbroglio, FIJ founder, Soyombo said the Federal Government must stand its ground.
“It is the government that should stand up for Nigerians because South Africans have lots of businesses in Nigeria and there is a fully-enabling environment for them.
“If Nigeria pulls out of DSTV or Multi-choice, you know what will happen. It is the government that should relate with South Africa to stop this.
“If someone applies for a visa and he is not going to get it, let the person know why. Take your decision and treat them with dignity. That is if they have a decision to take. For instance, in my case, I do not see any reason why they should deny me a visa. I have been to South Africa twice before then. I have no criminal record. I believe that to some extent, my profile is public. There are hundreds of others like that. It is the job of the Nigerian government to stand up for its citizens.”
Commission understaffed — NANTA President
The President, National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies, Susan Akporiaye, attributed the incessant delay in visa issuance to manpower shortage and post-COVID crises faced by the South Africa High Commission.
She told our correspondent that an information gap exists, noting that the South Africa Commission, unlike the British High Commission, has not been addressing salient concerns raised by the public.
She said, “There’s an information gap. They are not coming forward. I am aware of what is going on. South Africa is one of the African countries that came out of COVID-19 last.”
Akporiaye explained that for a long time, only the commission’s Abuja office has been functional, while others were shut.
“If you remember when they came, it was only Abuja that was open. Imagine applications coming from all over Nigeria and having only one functional centre. It was getting too much for them to handle. They had to re-open Lagos recently,” she added.
The NANTA president disclosed that the consulate was planning to bring staff to join the Lagos and Abuja offices to address the issue of manpower shortage.
Akporiaye said, “The last information they gave to me was that the problem would soon be a thing of the past. They are looking at bringing a minimum of four staff from the home office to Lagos, and also one to join the only person in Abuja,”
Speaking on the failure of the E-visa system to live up to its expectation, Akporiaye maintained that it still boils down to the challenge of inadequate manpower.
She said, “If you go online and apply for a visa, the process is still going to be done by a human being at the visa office. So, it still comes back to the understaffed issue. That is why we are not feeling the impact of the e-visa yet.”
On the consistent denial of visas to Nigerians, the NANTA president advised applicants to use credible agents, submit relevant documents and turn in their applications early.
“You see, one thing I know about Nigerians is that we are the last-minute type of people. We don’t plan. I am not supporting the fact that it’s taking longer than usual and I understand that sometimes emergencies come up but in most cases, it is not about emergencies. We are always doing things at the last minute.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry reacts
Foreign Affairs Ministry, Fransisca Omayuli, while speaking with our correspondent attributed challenges in visa issuance to ongoing reforms associated with the introduction of online visa processing by the South Africa High Commission.
She also corroborated claims made by the NANTA president that the Commission was faced with a manpower shortage challenge.
“The commission has just informed the ministry that it has increased capacity in the immigration section and hopes to see improvement in the next few days,” she added.
E-visa still problematic — Consular General
Initial efforts made to get the reaction of the South Africa High Commission proved abortive as the phone numbers listed on its website were not active.
Messages to its email address were not acknowledged or responded to.
When our correspondent visited the commission’s Lagos office located on plot 24, Molade Okoya Thomas St, Victoria Island, the entrance gate was locked.
A security officer manning the gate said the commission relocated to Banana Island, a highbrow neighbourhood, but refused to disclose the new address.
Weeks later, when PUNCH Investigations spoke with the new South African Consul-General in Lagos, Bobby Moroe, he blamed the challenges encountered by intending travellers on the commission’s relocation troubles in Lagos.
Moroe, who has served in Nigeria for five years as Deputy High Commissioner, admitted that the commission was faced with a shortage of manpower.
He said, “You know the consulate had an office for many years in Ikoyi but we have now identified new premises, still in Ikoyi. The project is taking so long.
“We are moving from one place to another and yet to settle down. The consulate in Lagos can’t issue visas. People can apply but their applications would be taken to Abuja. That is where the processing takes place.”
Moroe, however, gave an assurance that the challenges faced by Nigerian visa applicants will be a thing of the past in the coming weeks, noting that the South African government has sent three officials to assist with the backlogs.
Defending alleged serial visa denial to Nigerians, he said his country’s visa issuance system is not vindictive but is based on its immigration laws and requirements.
“The immigration policies are quite specific and may differ from one country to another, depending on bilateral relationships. We have a good bilateral relationship with Nigeria,” the Consul-General added.
He, however, urged those that feel they have been unjustly denied a visa to appeal the commission’s verdict, noting that they have a 10-day window period to do so.
Moroe confirmed that the e-visa system is marred by hitches but said that the commission is working to address them.
When told of South Africa’s ranking on the visa openness rating, he said that the commission is trying to enhance its visa issuance system.
Moroe said, “The Immigration and consular forum is looking at that precisely and how we can work together. We are already making progress and are deliberating on some of the policies. The commission is working on the visa of some Nigerian diplomats without a diplomatic passport.
“We realised that we have been keeping the passports of some applicants for too long. Rather than keep it, we are trying to find a way to ensure that when you submit your passport, we will make a photocopy and return the original. When the visa is ready, you will come with the original for stamping. This will help travellers who need the original copies of their passports for other purposes or travel access to them, before the commission’s verdict.” (Punch)