UCT held its annual Africa Careers Expo on 23 May as part of a programme of events for Africa Month. The expo facilitated student and recruiter introductions, and created a platform for investigating graduate opportunities on the continent.

Panel discussions included an employer Q&A, and a session on securing work permits, during which immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg and Kenyan-born UCT graduate Dr Jennifer Githaiga offered advice to graduates wishing to work in South Africa.

Nearly 5,000 international students from over 100 countries study at UCT, over half of whom come from countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But regardless of the skills or qualifications that they have to offer, only a small minority will succeed in securing the right to employment in South Africa after graduation.

“For a country burning with desire to hire talent, South Africa has the worst immigration system in the world,” says Gary Eisenberg, named South Africa’s best immigration lawyer for the seventh time in April 2017.

While Githaiga described the onerous process she has undergone over several years to obtain the correct work permits, Eisenberg offered legal advice on navigating an increasingly complex immigration system.

Both panellists painted a bleak picture for graduates from Africa and beyond.

Although there are technically three types of visas that fall into the work permit category, two are virtually useless to foreign graduates, says Eisenberg.  Intra-Company Transfer Visas cater to employees of foreign companies who already hold positions overseas, and General Work Visa applicants are met with a success rate of approximately 4 percent.

The application process for a General Work Visa is particularly onerous. Foreign qualifications must be vetted by the South African Qualifications Authority, background checks conducted, and letters from prospective employers procured – all before the Department of Labour decides whether or not to certify that a South African could not do the same job. Only at this point can an application be submitted for adjudication.

“The department of labour militantly protects the labour market from penetration by foreigners, a political disposition as opposed to a rational one,” explains Eisenberg. Citizens from SADEC and elsewhere on the continent are in no better position than those from outside Africa.

“If you’re going to apply for the right to work here, you must focus on having a critical skill,” advises Eisenberg. South Africa’s “critical skills list” currently includes a range of skills from astronomy, IT, and engineering, to sheep shearing.

Githaiga, who has a post-doctoral degree in psychology, describes the process as a bureaucratic nightmare, involving regular visa renewals that necessitate travelling to Kenya.  She shared a few of the lessons she has learned over the years with students.

“Be proactive. Department of Home Affairs policy changes faster than our cell phone technology!” Obtaining the right to work in South Africa is riddled with red tape, and DHA officials are not always reasonable, she says. “Don’t take it personally, it’s a systemic problem.”

One student asked Eisenberg whether he foresaw any positive reform of the system since former DHA Minister, Malusi Gigaba, released a Green Paper on immigration policy last year.

“Gigaba spearheaded the Green Paper, attacking the very system he could have amended very easily by making more constitution-compliant regulations,” he replied.

“Minsters could change this. What we should question is the unwillingness of our Ministers to make positive changes when they have the power to do so.”

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