South Africa’s new immigration law signed by President Jacob Zuma on May 16 is meant to strengthen the country’s security and protect local jobs. But the sweeping changes, which include much stiffer requirements for several visa categories, have come in for sharp criticism from migration experts, civil society organisations, and business leaders. Their biggest concern is that long-term economic growth will be negatively affected.

Elsewhere in Africa, policies on labour mobility seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Who is on the right track?

Critics in South Africa argue that overly stringent rules and a cumbersome application process will deter potential investors and force tourists to think again about booking holidays in a country world-renowned for its attractions. And the new rules that affect labour migrants come at a time when the country faces shortages in a number of high-skill sectors, including engineering and medicine.

Although the government is understandably keen to develop a “home-grown” repository of these skills, migration experts have long advocated that the best way to address these shortages – at least in the near term – is by increasing the mobility of workers among countries. Parts of the continent – especially west and east Africa – are moving in this direction.

This cannot be said for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The stated goal of SADC’s treaty to “gradually eliminate obstacles to movement” among members seems a long way off.

SADC has failed to bring into force the “facilitation of movement protocol”, which was proposed over 15 years ago and is meant to eventually allow for the free movement of persons, including labourers. SADC also lacks a governance system to manage labour mobility at a regional level.

A labour migration framework that seeks to “promote sound management of intra-regional labour migration” has been developed but is yet to be adopted. It is also yet to be seen if members will take concrete steps to achieve what is set out in the 2013-2015 SADC migration action plan, whose goal is a harmonised regional labour migration policy that protects the rights and access to work for migrant workers.

Recent studies of labour migration management in the region show that southern Africa is dominated by informality and bilateral agreements that do not adequately address issues such as skills shortages and irregular migration, that is, migrants without proper documentation.

Labour migrants within southern Africa often evoke popular fears over crime and job losses. When xenophobia rears its ugly head, they are the first ones in the firing line. Economic disparities within the region also make it more difficult for free labour mobility to become a reality.

Economic powerhouses in southern Africa such as Botswana and South Africa point out that free labour movement could result in a flood of migrants from less economically developed neighbours. This influx, they argue, could deprive local workers of jobs as well as dampen wages, particularly for those in low-skilled sectors.

In Africa, regional economic blocs, including the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), have made significant progress towards free movement. Ecowas’s protocol is already in force, allowing citizens to freely enter and establish themselves in member states. The protocol has substantially increased regional labour mobility, which has boosted investment and trade among west African states.

Common EAC passports allow citizens of member states to travel and – in the near future – work freely in the region. Kenya and Rwanda have already removed requirements for work permits for all EAC citizens. Important to note here is that both countries have not been inundated by migrants, as is often feared within SADC. Rather, by actively embracing regional labour mobility, Rwanda is benefiting from an inflow of skilled workers who are urgently needed in its nascent hi-tech sector.

While implementation of free movement protocols in the EAC and Ecowas is fraught with challenges, their political will to achieve this goal is instructive for SADC.

Current restrictive national policies along with bilateral agreements within SADC are not fit for purpose. If its members are serious about addressing the economic challenges facing southern Africa as a collective, the migration development nexus cannot be ignored.

* Adrian Kitimbo is the Machel-Mandela intern at the Brenthurst Foundation.