SAPeople editor Jenni Baxter sat down with Adrian Roos MP (DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Home Affairs) and Justin Adams (DA Abroad UK and Europe Chairperson) to discuss the critical situation SA citizens abroad are facing in obtaining their South African passports from Home Affairs and the SA embassies. To assist South Africans abroad the DA, DA Abroad and SAPeople are petitioning the Minister of Home Affairs.
Some of the points raised in the discussion include:
- This is a long-standing issue. For years (since at least 2014), many South African passport renewal applications abroad have been taking six months… but now this has become the norm, and some renewals are taking around 12 months! The Covid-19 Pandemic has exacerbated this, and Embassies are struggling with a backlog.
- This is a crisis heading for a catastrophe. Many South Africans abroad are desperate – unsure when they’ll ever get their passports, and facing subsequent problems abroad regarding their healthcare and right to live and work in their new countries.
- Accessing embassy staff is near impossible for many South Africans abroad – phone calls and emails go unanswered for weeks on end, and direct visits to Embassies that should be open are futile as they turn out to be closed. In the UK, the SA High Commission’s website has been down for over a month. Many desperate expats have turned to SAPeople and the DA Abroad for help.
- The current process includes a manual application with photos and fingerprints which are then sent in a diplomatic bag to Dirco in SA (along with other documents). Dirco sorts the bag and sends the passport applications to Home Affairs where they handle the manual applications, before sending them back to Dirco, back into a diplomatic bag (perhaps waiting for it to fill) and back to the country abroad. Instead of taking a max of two months which could make sense, it’s taking an extra four months at least!
- According to Home Affairs the diplomatic bag is sent monthly, but it appears more like they wait until the bag is full.
- A woman in South America has been stuck since 2018, sending her photos six times! And each time it is only when it finally gets to Home Affairs in Pretoria that an issue with the photos is detected.
- In SA, for locals, applications have sped up with a turn-around of two weeks. Applications are conducted manually or digitally (in larger offices). Citizens are able to submit electronic applications where their photos are taken digitally and automatically encrypted and sent to the printer.
- If the larger embassies and commissions abroad could adopt the same digital system as the larger offices in SA, it would save a LOT of time, chopping out the need for any diplomatic bag to be sent to SA. It would dramatically improve matters with only the physical document needing to be sent back.
- Home Affairs says it doesn’t have the budget, but since March a new tax on some South Africans working abroad is asking them for up to 45% of their foreign income. It appears South Africans abroad are good enough to pay tax, but not good enough to get a decent service from the government.
- Comparing the situation for South Africans to other foreigners living abroad, many foreign expats wait only two weeks to a month for their country’s passport. India – which is also in the BRICS set of countries – recently announced a two-day turn around, and said if there are any problems, it may take up to two weeks!
- Communication has not been great with Home Affairs saying Embassies are open, when they’re closed. It’s difficult for many South Africans who don’t live close to their Embassy to travel, only to discover it’s closed. Accessibility needs to be improved – officials need to answer phones and emails.
- The system appears chaotic at the moment. People have been known to wait eight months and then go into the Embassy and pretend they received notification that their passport was ready – and sure enough, they are handed their passport. Months later they receive a notification that their passport is ready (despite them already having it in their hands for a few months)… which raises many questions!
- While some embassy staff are very sweet and as helpful as they can be, some are frustrated and South Africans abroad have reported being treated badly by rude staff. Home Affairs’ motto is “we care” but the way South Africans abroad are being treated seems to say something different.
- South Africans abroad have a right to be treated with respect, and to be helped. A passport is a document that you are constitutionally entitled to and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure you have that right and to help you.
- There appears to be no understanding at Home Affairs in SA of what a nightmare South Africans abroad are going through. One retort from the office was that “they can just travel back to SA”, but not everyone can just afford a flight back to SA (over £500 from the UK) and travelling to SA is not the only reason a citizen needs a passport.
- Some desperate expats, who can afford it, are being driven to fly home to renew their passports in SA. The legality of this is unknown.
- Some South Africans who have had a bad experience with trying to renew their passports are giving up. This will have huge implications on SA. Each South African abroad is a walking advertising board – we’d rather they were saying something positive, and spending their dollars/pounds on holidays and properties back home. (In Australia alone there are over 680,000 South Africans!) There are also foreign investors and potential tourists who are also giving up on SA because of the lack of service at some missions abroad.
- The solutions seem so simple. It feels like there isn’t a “political will” to look at this challenge (which is why it’s imperative that we get 20,000 people to sign the petition!)
- The Petition aims to firstly: ask for the Minister to ensure that South Africans living and working abroad have an emergency extension to their passport, just to cover the 6 to 12 months average wait for renewals. This has been successfully done in other countries like Kuwait.
- The Petition aims to secondly: ask that Home Affairs co-ordinate with Dirco to ensure all the facilities are fully open for business and Covid-safety compliant so that South Africans can get access to renew their passport which is a constitutional right, and for which Home Affairs is responsible.
- In the longer term, the Petition would like Home Affairs and Dirco to liaise to reduce the unacceptable current turn-around times at many of the embassies and consulates abroad, with solutions like an electronic application process and courier services that applicants pay for, as occurs with other countries.
- The SA government could be breaking the law, since there is an international law that states a country cannot leave its citizens stateless.
- If you are absolutely desperate, the DA is able to assist through the Parliamentary process. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org – although this is not a long-term solution.
- If you are affected, or know someone who is affected, please sign. And please get the whole family and all your friends to sign. Anyone can sign. We have to get 20,000 signatures to take this to Parliament to get a portfolio committee to spark a debate and formally drive this urgent issue so that it can be resolved. We have listened to desperate South Africans’ cries for help, and this is the best way to get the solutions they need.
Show your support. Sign and share the petition: