William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Wannabe pilot Gigaba’s ill-fated flight of fantasy

While arrogance is undoubtedly an unattractive trait, in modern society it is so prevalent among politicians, top officials and corporate leaders as to be entirely unremarkable. However, when it combines with a stubborn inability to admit to error, it becomes dangerous.

Until recently the most newsworthy act by Malusi Gigaba was dressing in the uniform of a South African Airways captain for last year’s opening of Parliament. A cynic might have attributed this bizarre sartorial affectation by the then minister of public enterprises to the fact that he didn’t understand the distinction between a fancy dress party and a circus opening.

Gigaba is now the minister of home affairs. He may yet down the line find an SAA pilots uniform a useful disguise while trying to escape the enraged clutches of a travel industry that is reeling under his new visa regulations, which came into operation on June 1.

South Africa now demands of anyone travelling here with a child that — on top of any visas they might require — they produce unabridged birth certificates and affidavits of permission from any absent parent. The laudable goal of these incredibly onerous regulations, unique in the world, is to reduce child trafficking.

For more than a year government has been warned that the introduction of the new regulations would be devastating to a tourist industry that happens to be the only golden goose left in an increasingly bedraggled economic poultry hok. Every seven visitors to SA support one job and tourism makes up almost 10% of SA’s gross domestic product.

Already, in response to the regulations, airline ticketing to SA is 20% down. Travel from India and China, areas that were of burgeoning importance, has dropped 50%-70% and shed almost R7 billion in revenue.

The situation will get worse. More than 60% of Brits recently polled said they would reconsider travel to South Africa in light of the new regulations. Since Europe and the United States delivers much sought-after high-spending visitors, other African destinations are rubbing their hands with glee at SA’s stupidity.

More than a year ago home affairs promised to convene a “task force”, drawing in all stakeholders, to examine the ramifications of the regulations. That did not happen and indeed it probably would have been pointless, since Gigaba has reiterated repeatedly that he would not reverse his position.

Zuma repeated the promise of a review in his 2015 State of the Nation (Sona) address. Par for the course with Sona, nothing happened, with the only comment from Gigaba being: “When people are finished complaining they must comply. There is no way we are changing it (the new regulations).”

Eventually even the mild-mannered tourism minister, Derek Hanekom, summoned up the courage to squeak a belated protest. A fortnight ago he told the media that he was “concerned” that the new regulations were impacting on the tourism industry, with six months of negative growth from countries affected by the regulations.

Negative growth, one of those euphemisms beloved of shape-shifting politicians, means shrinkage. Which means additional job losses in an economy where there is already 26% unemployment.

Gigaba’s public response to his ministerial colleague? He would not revise the regulations.

At the World Economic Forum meeting, in Cape Town last week, minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, suddenly entered the fray. He told his bemused audience — two days before the new regulations were scheduled to come into operation — that South Africa was “prioritising the revision of the regulations as a matter of extreme urgency … despite the noble intentions of these immigration policies, they have had unintended consequences”.

These consequences might be unintended, as the minister notes. But they are not unforeseen. The travel and tourism industry and the opposition parties have been warning of the likely consequences for more than a year.

President Jacob Zuma’s administration, however, will not or cannot listen. As I noted in last week’s column, in Zuma’s laissez-faire administration ministers are allowed to do what they wish, setting policy by ministerial whim. The result is political capriciousness, organisational chaos, and a state unable to govern effectively.

It is not clear from Radebe’s statement whether the regulations have been suspended while this “extremely urgent” review takes place. In any case, much of the damage has already been done.

A fortnight ago Air China cancelled the launch of direct flights to South Africa. Tour operators prepare their itineraries and brochures more than a year in advance and a regulatory change now will only begin to pay off 18 months down the line.

Jack-in-box Gigaba has been uncharacteristically silent following Radebe’s intervention. But in the Zuma administration loyalty always counts more than competence.

This is a man who, African National Congress insiders predict, is destined to be a high-flyer. Fortunately, in anticipation, he already has already acquired the braided uniform and peaked cap.

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