Jean Barker

The R-word and SA passports

2013-11-01 07:58

Jean Barker

I have a niece and a nephew in the UK. My niece is 4 years old, and my nephew is 2, and I've never met either of them in person. Sometimes the photos of them my mom sends me, in which my little niece always holds the battered plush leopard I bought and mailed to her when she was born, make me cry. I don't have my own kids and I would love the chance to get to know my brother's.

Since I live in the USA and have flown via the UK, you'd think I'd just visit them, right? Wrong. I never have. Because, here's the thing: getting a UK visa is a bitch. Getting any kind of European visa is extremely difficult for a South African passport holder these days. It takes up to 60 days, and I simply cannot plan that far in advance at the moment.

Even the highly-conservative UK Telegraph sees the injustice, telling the story of an 80-year-old who can't visit his children because the British make it nearly impossible to do without having a law degree and a stack of cash.

So the question is: Why does the UK and Europe make it even more difficult to go there than to visit the famously tricky USA? After all, we're members of the commonwealth. US Citizens are not members, yet they are admitted without visas.

I want to play fair, so I'm going to discuss some of the reasons that might make sense.

Is it the crime? Is it the when-we's?

It wouldn't be surprising to discover that they think we're a bunch of criminals looking for a new target when half the British citizens who returned there after apartheid ended spend their time online denigrating the country whose racial privilege they happily exploited for so many years as dual citizens. Or maybe the Brits just don't want any more sour-puss former sort-of-South Africans crossing their borders. Understandable, I say.

But neither crime nor whining are the reason the UK gives for no longer allowing us in.

South Africa: Terrorism's clearing house!

I'm not kidding. This is exactly the reason given by the British Authorities for me not being permitted to pop in for a few days to visit my little niece. Apparently, I might be a terrorist.

The British say that they don't trust our border controls and that the new rules are because they fear that South Africa - through our incompetence in border control and passport verification - allows al-Qaeda terrorists into Britain.

WHAT? Being a long term citizen of South Africa is probably one of the slower and least effective ways to enter the UK. If you're a terrorist and you want to go to Britain, here's a tip: Travel via South America, and pick up a fake passport while you're there. The UK will welcome you for 90 days.

What the evidence points to

If you look very simply at the history of the UK's treatment of commonwealth member countries' citizens when it came to visa requirements, a pattern emerges.

Passport holders from member countries South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ghana, Mauritius, Kenya, Lesotho and Uganda are required to undergo fingerprinting, background checks, post off their precious passports and pay massive fees before they're allowed to set foot on UK soil. This isn't required of citizens of Australia.

Indian (commonwealth member) citizens have to get a full visa too. Citizens of member country Jamaica are required to get a full visa in advance before entering the UK. Yet citizens of most South American nations - few of which are commonwealth - can walk right on though... New Guinea? That's a problem, get a visa. New Zealand? Welcome, Kiwi, enjoy your stay!

This could go on and on and on... I don't want to bore you to tears with the details. But what begins to emerge is very much a picture, in black and white, of visa requirements.

South Africa's visa history

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, when South Africa was ruled by a racist political system you may have heard of, known as apartheid, South Africans could enter the UK without a visa and stay for up to a year. There were no financial requirements, and I think the authorities were well aware that (mostly white) South Africans worked illegally in their country. It suited them to have all this cheap, relatively skilled labour coming over to wash their dishes, build their buildings and nanny their kids.

After apartheid ended, guess what? South Africans entering the UK were required to show they had about R25 000 on them before they could enter. We were now briefly permitted to work legally in the UK. This was before the black middle class had grown to its current size, so most entrants were still pale-faces.

But in November 2008, the right to work was taken away, too.

And soon after, in March 2009, South Africans with no previous travel history to the UK needed to obtain a visa before traveling, but it was fairly quick.
A full visa regime (background checks, fingerprinting, etc, which can take as long as 60 days) for all South Africans came into force from July 1 2009.

Here it is, in black and white...

I hate it when people accuse others of prejudice without due cause. But what can you do when the evidence is right in front of you? Take a look - and tell me I'm wrong. I hope you can - because I don't want to believe what I see in front of me.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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