Let us work to remove visa restrictions for Southern Africa

Mr Immanuel Ben Misagga is a football investor and businessman.

What you need to know:

  • ...if all African countries are willing to recognise their implicit biases and put them aside to foster improvement of diplomatic relations, there may be hope for a united Africa 

While on a business trip in Europe recently, my business partners proposed that we hold follow-up benchmark meetings in South Africa two days later. It soon dawned on me that it was impossible to make the South African meeting in the short timeframe. This is so because that required me to first fly back to Uganda and apply for a South African visa, a process that takes days and, sometimes, weeks.
So, I had to miss out as my colleagues from Kenya, Tanzania, and Portugal made it to Johannesburg. The reason for my predicament is because my ordinary Ugandan passport is not among those exempted for a port-of-entry visa in South Africa. It was a frustrating experience that evoked feelings of unrequited economic and political sacrifices made by Uganda over the years.

Granted, visa restrictions are an important policy tool for countries to regulate the entry of foreign visitors, but Uganda and South Africa have enjoyed strong diplomatic relations since 1994, when South Africa’s apartheid system was dismantled. Even before, Uganda was just one of a few African states that openly supported and armed South Africans to fight the apartheid regime. In the economic sphere, I don’t think there is a country that has rolled out a red carpet for South African companies like Uganda. The South Africans dominate local investment in a range of sectors such as banking, telecommunications, and agriculture. What’s more, South African passport holders are exempt from port-of-entry visa requirements; so, to subject Ugandans to the tedious process of visa application and the exorbitant visa fees before traveling to South Africa does not reciprocate the relationship between the two countries. So, ahead of the upcoming inaugural Uganda-South Africa Trade, Tourism, and Investment Summit that starts on February 27 and ends on March 1, I appeal to the Ugandan delegation to brief President Museveni about how this unfair restriction is hurting Ugandans.

At the moment, there should be some top-level lobbying from ministers and diplomats for the removal of this visa restriction ahead of the summit. I am hopeful President Museveni will travel for the summit and address this issue with his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Meanwhile, Ugandans also meet similar challenges when traveling to Botswana, whose visa restrictions are baffling if not annoying. Why should a Ugandan have to apply for the visa in Nairobi whereas people from Botswana seamlessly walk into Entebbe to receive automatic visas? Besides, Uganda is the bigger economy when it comes to trade volumes. 

For instance, we exported more than $7m to Botswana in return for just $860,000 last year alone, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. On the flipside, Botswana entities like Letshego, a financial institution, mints billions of shillings annually in Uganda. So, when you compare how much Botswana makes from visa fees compared to what they gain from Uganda, it is clear the former is denting their economy. Does Botswana really expect Ugandans to flood it and overstay their welcome? Therefore, the creation of visa exemptions between the two countries mostly benefits Botswana because Uganda had bigger purchasing power.
In the same vein, Angola and Mozambique are not any different and one has to apply for visas from Zambia and Kenya, respectively. It has been widely argued that Uganda would have to apply to join the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in order to have such visa restrictions removed, but that is just a misrepresentation because Kenya is not even part of the bloc yet its nationals have no restrictions on traveling to SADC countries.

My general observation of this situation is the hidden biases that countries carry around when they perceive themselves as being in a dominant position.
The general view, even among Ugandans, is that the majority of Ugandans who wish to travel to South Africa seek to become migrant workers and will overstay their visas. This is not actually true.
So, if all African countries are willing to recognise their implicit biases and put them aside to foster improvement of diplomatic relations, there may be hope for a united Africa after all.

Mr Immanuel B. Misagga is a  concerned businessman.