Africa is breaking down colonial-era barriers, liberalising its visa policies

2018-07-17 00:09

While Western nations hide behind ever higher border fences and ever longer walls, African countries are starting to break down the colonial-era barriers that have for centuries restricted travel and trade within the continent.

The African Union (AU) is moving ahead with plans to eliminate travel restrictions for citizens of all 55 member states.

Since its inception, the AU has prioritised greater economic integration and unity among African countries. Its most recent effort in this regard has been the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area, and African heads of state are also actively exploring the viability of a pan-African passport.

The South African passport, ranked 50th globally, occupies third place in the sub-Saharan Africa region, following the Seychelles, ranked 24th globally, and Mauritius, ranked 28th globally.

Many African citizens wanting to travel within the continent are faced with exorbitant visa fees, which, compounded by prohibitive entry requirements and high costs of travel, often keep them within the borders of their own countries. The introduction of a continent-wide passport is set to make visa-free travel a reality and facilitate the growth of tourism and trade among African countries.

How quickly the AU can resolve the various logistical and policy hurdles surrounding a pan-African passport remains to be seen, however.

Dr Khabele Matlosa, director of the political affairs department in the AU, has said that such a passport will be meaningless without the full and effective implementation of the protocol on the free movement of persons, and vice versa.

“Like twins, the protocol and the African passport are inextricably interlinked,” Dr Matlosa explained. He added that in order to ensure the effective implementation of the protocol and the swift issuance of the African passport, African leaders needed to take the first step of abolishing visas and endorsing the right of entry associated with an African passport.

The protocol enshrines the right of African nationals to freely move to, reside, work, study, or do business in any of the 55 member states of the continental body.

Africa’s passport power

The Henley Passport Index is a ranking of all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa. Based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association, the index is updated in real time, as and when visa-policy changes come into effect.

The South African passport remains stable in the Q3 update of the Henley Passport Index. South Africa, ranked 50th globally, occupies third place in the sub-Saharan Africa region, following the Seychelles, ranked 24th globally, and Mauritius, ranked 28th globally. The latter two countries are the only ones in Africa that have unqualified access to the Schengen Area, which gives them a clear advantage over their regional peers in terms of passport power.

The Seychelles and Mauritius also have relatively open inbound visa policies, which works in their favour. The Seychelles, which has rendered itself a completely visa-free destination, secured additional deregulated visa access for its own passport holders through visa waivers from the governments of Thailand and Angola in the first quarter of 2018. Similarly, Mauritius, which is visa-free for all but 16 countries, secured a visa-waiver agreement with New Zealand in April 2018.

Driving the downward spiral since 2009 have been concerns over the unlawful replication of South African passports documents, with replication often abetted by corrupt officials within the department of home affairs. These concerns saw visa regulations being enforced by several countries, including the UK and Colombia.
Ryan Cummings

Somalia, Libya, and Eritrea sit at the bottom of the African portion of the Henley Passport Index, each only able to access 35 or fewer destinations visa-free.

South Africa has dropped 18 places from its historical high point of 35th place on both the 2008 and the 2009 global ranking.

While South Africa has gained access to a number of new travel destinations since 2009, it is not improving its global access levels as quickly as other high-performing countries on the index, “leading to an overall decline in its passport power.”

Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, explains this decline as follows: “Driving the downward spiral since 2009 have been concerns over the unlawful replication of South African passports documents, with replication often abetted by corrupt officials within the department of home affairs. These concerns saw visa regulations being enforced by several countries, including the UK and Colombia.”

There is cause for optimism, however. Cummings says: “The implementation of widespread reforms at the department since 2014 – focused on improving security features both in the application process and within the passport document itself – is expected to enhance confidence in the South African passport and may relax visa restrictions for its holders in future. Other factors that could strengthen the South African passport over the short-to-medium-term include President Cyril Ramaphosa’s intention to ease visa restrictions for African passport holders so as to induce greater intra-Africa trade.”

The latter intervention could see other African countries introducing reciprocal measures for South Africans, as in the case of the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Indeed, Ramaphosa has expressed a commitment to follow in the general direction of visa liberalisation set out by the AU, as outlined in its Agenda 2063 mandate.

The world’s most powerful passport spot is shared by Japan and Singapore. Picture: iStock

“South Africa’s borders need to be open for people – particularly Africans – to move more freely and to promote business,” he told journalists following an AU summit recently.

“The easy movement of people across borders and countries should never be seen in a negative way by us as South Africans.”

A potential model for South Africa in terms of promoting travel freedom is Angola, which recently removed visa requirements for nine African countries: namely, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Morocco, Swaziland, Algeria, and Zambia. Similarly, the undertaking of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community to grant visa waivers to passport-holders of its member states (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Chad) could also be replicated by other regional political blocs seeking to promote the AU’s vision of increasing inter-African trade and travel.

Amanda Smit is a director at Henley & Partners South Africa

What’s the world’s best passport?

Japan and Singapore share first place on the index, enjoying visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 189 destinations. Both countries gained access to Uzbekistan earlier this year, knocking Germany off the top spot and kicking the latter into second place for the first time since 2013. 2018 is the first year in the index’s 13-year history that either Japan or Singapore has had the most powerful passport in the world.

The rest of the top 20 on the Henley Passport Index remains fairly stable as the northern hemisphere enters the big summer holiday season, with no new visa-waivers processed for the UK and the US, who both remain in fourth place. Nationals of these countries, like nationals of most EU member states, have not seen any improvement in their global access since 2017.

South Korea shares third place with six EU member states: Sweden, Finland, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and France. And Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal share fourth place with the US and the UK.

Russia, which opened its borders to World Cup fans this summer, has not yet gained reciprocal access to any new destinations, but it nonetheless rose one place to 46th position, benefiting from an upward climb by the Pacific island-nation of Tuvalu, which gained visa-free access to Taiwan.

The UAE has continued its remarkable performance and gained access to four new destinations since May, rising to 21st place globally and fast approaching the top 20.

Despite gaining access to two new destinations, China has fallen one place to 69th on the index: improved scores for countries such as Nauru, Belarus, and Indonesia, which sit directly above China, have made it difficult for the country to ascend the ranking.

Citizenship-by-investment changes your passport power

A passport is much more than a simple travel document. It is a gateway to international opportunities or a barrier to those same opportunities. The Henley Passport Index enables individuals to assess where they lie on the spectrum of global mobility and helps governments understand the relative value and power of the passports they provide.

A poor-performing passport need not constrain your potential.

Far from being something we are powerless to change, citizenship is much more flexible than many people realise. Citizenship-by-investment programmes allow individuals to drastically improve the strength of their passport and, in turn, their global access.

In participating in these programs, individuals are also able to make an exceptional economic contribution to often smaller nations that require foreign direct investment in order to support their populations and remain competitive and sustainable in the long-term. It is a mutually beneficial exchange, and it is also very much the direction in which the world is heading, as globalisation becomes an undeniable feature of modern life. – Amanda Smit

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January 26 2020