Let’s invest in preventing the tragedies that are likely

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WHICH of the following two options has a greater potential to threaten the security of a South African citizen: an unidentified traveller with fake documentation, or an unemployed local youth?

This is the trade-off that the Department of Home Affairs has to balance with its stringent new visa policies. A number of reforms to the current immigration regulations have been implemented but are being fought by the Department of Tourism, private firms, and civil organisations.

All people under the age of 18 will need unabridged birth certificates if they wish to enter South Africa; applications for business visas will now require a letter of recommendation from the Department of Trade and Industry; requirements to prove life partner status are now more stringent; and changing visa status will now be more complicated, requiring visitors to leave South Africa and apply for their new visa from their own country of residence.

In addition, all visa applications now need to be made in person, creating another barrier to entry for those who live far from South African embassies. Yes, security threats of foreign entrants are a concern but at what cost do we care about it? Is what we sacrifice by implementing these laws a fair representation of the risk that we keep out?

By way of another example, look at airport security. Worldwide, billions of dollars are poured into security checks, high-tech scanning equipment, potential threat identification and logistics controls. Add to that the value of the time lost while an airplane load of people fidget to get their belt off, only to have to pass through the scanner again because they forgot about the lighter in their pocket. We’re paranoid about airplanes but when was the last time you saw any security at a train station?

Life lost in a terrorist attack on a plane is tragic; it has happened and may happen again but it remains extremely unlikely. Imagine how many lives we could save and improve if less was invested into airport security and more into training teachers, distributing antiretroviral drugs, or advancing medical research.

Airport security, just like the new immigration regulations, creates an inefficient economic system because the ratio of prevention costs to the magnitude of threat they are designed to mitigate is exaggerated and this drains resources from where threats are more real.

Rather than investing in preventing an unlikely tragedy, we should invest in preventing the ones we know are certain to happen. Just a fraction of what it is going to cost government to administer the new regulations could save thousands of lives if it were put towards better road safety.

It is true these laws are not revolutionary, many countries have implemented them. But keeping up with the Jones’ is not always the best way to go. Following policies more suitable for the local context will not just help South Africa keep up with the world, but in fact give it an advantage as it becomes relatively easier to travel here.

South Africa does not have the luxury of demand to require that visitors go through such lengthy processes, nor does it have the administrative resources to implement this US-style protectionism.

To reach its economic goals South Africa needs all the help it can get and making it harder for people, their spending, and their investment to come in – all in the name of “protecting our borders” – is completely counter-productive and poorly calculated.

Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein


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