South Africa’s new critical skills list, Home Affairs shrugs off cuts

The Department of Home Affairs has published South Africa’s new draft white paper on citizenship, immigration, and refugee protection for public comment, proposing a complete overhaul of the country’s migration system.

Among the many changes in the lineup, the whitepaper briefly makes mention of South Africa’s critical skills list and justifies amendments made to the list in 2022, which trimmed down the number of positions advertised as critical.

The critical skills list was updated for the first time since 2014 in February 2022, sparking controversy in the medical field as most of the jobs cut from the list came from that sector.

The list was updated again in August 2022, which added 39 more occupations to the list, largely from the medical field seemingly in response to this criticism, although key jobs were still omitted.

While nurses and various medical and pharmacy specialists  and vets in the latest update to the list in October 2023 have been added to the list, general practitioners and doctors remain off the list.

The department acknowledged that there has been “fierce criticism” of the new list  mainly emanating from the professions that were cut.

“Normally, the Critical Skills List ought to be updated every four years due to the ever-changing skills shortage in South Africa,” the department said.

This, it said, justified the removal of medical doctors from the list as, at the moment, there is no shortage of South African medical doctors “at the undergraduate level”.

It added that removing certain professions from the list was fine because those occupations could still apply for other types of visas.

“The exclusion of certain professions/qualifications will not impact negatively on the economy as there are other visas such as business visa, relatives visa, work visa, corporate visa and intra-company visas, which foreign nationals may apply for,” the department said.

Visa disaster

While the department justifies it position in blocking out certain professions from attaining critical skills visas, this position is juxtaposed with the ongoing chaos in processing visa applications in South Africa including critical skills visa.

Simply put, even if professionals make use of the various visa paths mentioned in the whitepaper, a massive backlog and operational delays within the department make this route problematic.

Business surveys have already shown that companies are desperate for skilled workers, and delays at Home Affairs are causing nightmare scenarios for businesses that want to expand or thrive in South Africa.

According to Business Leadership South Africa chief executive, Busi Mavuso, a lack of critical skills is holding back the South African economy, and the problem isn’t being resolved with the necessary speed.

“There is a backlog of 74,000 applications for all kinds of visas at the Department of Home Affairs according to an official quoted by Bloomberg last month many of those in the scarce skills category.

“The backlog is staggering, a number in line with the headcount of some of South Africa’s biggest companies. If those skills were to suddenly be working in our economy, the impact would be significant,” she said.

While the CEO noted “anecdotal reports” that processing of applications at Home Affairs were improving, she said the backlog was a massive problem that needed to be address. Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi indicated that the backlog should be cleared by June 2024.

“The fact that companies can’t fill the positions means they can’t invest and expand. Expansion would enable much further employment, more tax to be generated, and the overall business environment to be greatly improved,” Mavuso said.

The BLSA lead said that changing immigration policy is a long process, but the government could score some quick wins by making room for visa categories like remote work visas. To address the staggering backlog, however, administrative changes need to be made.

“Business could help. The private sector has extensive administrative capacity that could be drawn on to process the backlog. While the procedures to do so would need to be determined, and staff capacity will need to be built through some training, the backlog could be resolved in a matter of months,” she said.