South Africa’s short-sighted and protectionist approach towards work permits will hit its youth by the end of the year with the demise of the United Kingdom working holiday-maker scheme.
Although the UK is offering a youth mobility scheme in its place, South Africa is likely to be excluded because the government is uninterested in a reciprocal arrangement, allowing young Brits to support themselves while they take time out to explore this beautiful country.
I have heard a number of indignant South Africans citing the high levels of unemployment in this country as a reason why they, unlike Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, cannot offer work to their British peers, but this one-sided approach is severely skewed.
In 2002 I spent six months living in Australia on a working-holiday visa. Of the 13 flatmates with whom I shared a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Sydney, 11 had working-holiday visas and only one was not a graduate or on a gap year prior to studying.
The temporary jobs we had included speech writing, nursing and music licensing. One spent five weeks selling his body for medical experimentation. After three years living in South Africa, it is my understanding that the staggering numbers of unemployed are primarily unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and there is a need to create more jobs in these areas — not in the fields in which my flatmates and I worked or wanted to work.
Although a number of us also took call centre, secretarial and bar jobs, South Africa could always close off certain professions to overseas youth, if this is such an issue.
However, the fact remains that by refusing to participate in an exchange scheme, South Africa is worse off. Instead of sending a few thousand of its citizens to the UK to earn pounds and gain international experience to boost their home economy, while the same number of British youth come here and share their culture and know-how, the government is creating a situation where there will be just as many people in the country looking for work: only they will be South Africans.
South Africa is also shutting the door on all the shiny sterling it could be welcoming in. When I went to Australia, the first thing I did was spend all my hard-earned pounds, before following that up by blowing every wage packet I had on travel and partying. I wasn’t alone. No one is going to come over with the aim of saving rand — wages would go straight back into tourism, rental, transport, entertainment, shops, bars and restaurants.
This country’s ostrich approach to work permits affects me even though I am no longer of working holiday-maker age. Despite being married to a South African and having temporary residency, to work I need to find an employer willing to hire me, fill in a ton of paperwork, compose a motivational letter, and then wait a month for the Department of Home Affairs to consider it.
This might be viable if they were getting a full-time employee. With an infant, however, I am only able to work part-time. This leaves us surviving on one wage, compromising my South African daughter’s standard of living. As such, my husband is being forced to leave his country to return to mine where he is automatically entitled to work and support his family on a spouse permit.
South Africans gripe about the brain drain but their approach to work permits actively encourages this.
Most serious is the way this policy affects the poorer citizens it professes to protect. Outside our flat there is a man who spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to wash cars for a living. A refugee from the DRC and married to a South African, he is allowed to stay in this country but not allowed to work. His baby and toddler wait on the pavement all day for him to raise enough money to take them to a shelter and feed them: by excluding him from the labour force, three South Africans are deprived of their right to dignity, housing and water.