Can tech savvy youthful migrants help end xenophobia in South Africa?


This article was contributed to TechCabal by Conrad Onyango, bird

An index on openness in Africa shows South Africa easing visa restrictions and eyeing talented young migrants to tap jobs of the future, a trend encouraged by the country’s business-focused president and one which may come as a surprise in a country that has known close to three decades of xenophobic violence.

South Africa has begun pushing back against a cloud of xenophobia with a significant improvement in its visa openness and a quest to attract youthful, skilled workers from tech-focused countries across the continent. Some of those countries previously experienced frosty relations with the country that was for decades the continent’s economic heavyweight.

The Africa Visa Openness Index 2021 shows the country has moved up 19 positions over the last five years, with South Africa listed among 20 Africa countries that recorded the highest scores over the period. It now sits at position 30.

“Close to half of countries have adopted a more liberal visa policy for African travellers since 2016, and a large number of the top performers added an eVisa to their electronic border systems,” the Index’s latest report noted.

While South Africa is yet to offer an eVisa, it has ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement, has signed the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and the Single African Air Transport Market.

South Africa’s improved visa ranking is supported by recent trips by its head of state to a number of African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Kenya to ‘stimulate good economic relationships.’

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The moves have encourged reciprocity. A visit to South Africa by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in November last year led to the signing of eight bilateral trade agreements, including on tourism and migration as well as a Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA).

In his new year’s address, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya Airways (KQ) and South African Airways (SAA) would partner to form a Pan-African airline, set to begin operations in 2023 to spur tourism, trade, and social engagement.

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The agreements also mean that soon, Kenyans visiting South Africa will not have to go through complicated visa processes. Kenya is not alone. With the ‘lifting of visa restrictions’ a key concern for all the West African countries President Ramaphosa visited, it is expected that these jurisdictions will also benefit from free access to the largest second-largest economy on the continent, with South Africa pushing its cabinet ministers to fully implement existing agreements.

“I have insisted that all agreements we sign with countries be implemented because that is where the economic growth of our country can be engendered,” Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa said his foreign policy was focusing on improving relations with African sister countries when he concluded his work visit to the West African countries in December 2021.

In so doing, the South African president is tapping into a high level wealth of knowledge and skills amongst a bulging youthful population on the continent.

“This continent is full of educated people, learned people who are not competing with us, people who want to cooperate, are spirited and want to see us succeed,” said Ramaphosa.

Talent exchange has the potential of uniting the continent

While Kenya and Nigeria have won renown as continental knowledge and and innovation hubs, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast are fast-growing new tech ecosystem centres, highlighting a tech-savvy, youthful talent pool that South Africa can tap into.

The African Tech Ecosystems of the Future 2021/22 report prepared by foreign direct investment intelligence and research firm, Briter Bridges, places Kenya in top position on the continent in the human capital and lifestyle category, due to a high number of coding schools and universities.

“Where educational institutions such as universities can be slow to match skills needed by the private sector, more agile institutions such as coding hubs provide a fast and dynamic way to quickly upskill the local population,” according to the report.

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Ghana comes second in the category rankings, buoyed by its commitment to the growth of technology education.

Since 1994, xenophobic violence in South Africa has resulted in 615 deaths with most concentrated in three provinces – Guateng (347), Western Cape (148) and Kwa Zulu Natal (124) – according to Xenowatch, a tool developed by African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) to monitor xenophobic discrimination in South Africa.

A total of 875 incidences the tool shows has that xeonphobic violence has so far displaced over 120,000 people, with close to 5,000 migrant shops looted- indicating competition for jobs has been largely in the lower end of the spectrum.

Ramaphosa said Africa was the fastest-growing region in the world and that by 2050 one person out of four in the world was projected to be African, presenting a huge market. South Africa was looking to grow its economic footprint across the continent but would do so in a very different way to how it had engaged in business in the past, according to Ramaphosa.

“I want our relationship with all the countries on our continent to be tight and for South Africa, never ever to play a domineering role and never ever play a role where we think we are better than other countries,” he said.

The return of Big Brother Africa

The move comes as one of South Africa’s best-known “soft power” exports returns to screens across the continent, with the return of Big Brother Africa later this month following a 7-year hiatus.

Africa’s top-rated classic reality television show rides on the concept of bringing people from different countries and cultures to live with each other and learn each other’s personalities and behaviors – including during their most intimate moments – all watched live across the continent.

South Africa will play host to the new edition, dubbed, ‘Big Brother Mzansi’.

South Africa may be taking its cue from smaller African countries like Seychelles and Mauritius that are successfully growing their economies by using tourism and culture to up their appeal while tapping skilled workers to grow their economies through the tourism, technology and financial services sectors.

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Fewer than 20 African countries currently have visa-free access to South Africa, with the rest required to obtain visas before they depart their home countries.

Two-thirds of countries in all regions of the continent, the Index shows, have improved and maintained their visa openness score over the last five years, with 44 percent of the jurisdiction offering electronic visa’s.

The Index also shows a rising youthful population poised to take charge of the continent’s future -bolstering Africa’s travel, tourism, and investment growth.

“All young people need, is the freedom to move around the continent and support as they develop into Africa’s entrepreneurs and business leaders,” says the report.

Benin, The Gambia and Namibia are the top three most improved countries on the index, rising up the ranks with 30, 23 and 19 positions respectively since 2016. Small African countries lead their bigger peers.

Benin (1) and The Gambia (1) offer visa-free access to all African visitors while Namibia (19) allows citizens of 72 percent of African countries to enter the country visa-free, or through a visa on arrival arrangement.

Along with Benin and The Gambia, Seychelles is the only other African country that offers free visa access to all African visitors.

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