South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma left Nairobi on Wednesday morning having concluded a first-ever State visit to Kenya by a South African president.
But the visit left a bitter taste in every Kenyan’s mouth.
The expectations attached to the trip were simple: the visa rules imposed on Kenyan travellers had to be changed really fast.
What Kenyans got was, however, a promise to “consider” the request officially handed in by his host, President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Both leaders had told journalists how committed they were to “softening up borders” to improve intra-African trade from the paltry 14 per cent to something higher.
But South Africa and Kenya are not equals and their passports are not either.
To President Kenyatta, there is no good reason South Africa continues to require Kenyans to apply for visas and wait for five working days to get them when South Africans can get entry permits on arrival in Kenya.
To President Zuma, however, Kenya is a conduit for illegal immigrants, a weakness that must be tamed before this privilege is granted.
The irony is that the South African leader also acknowledged his country hosts many of these people, mostly from Zimbabwe, who he said could easily take advantage of easier rules.
“You know that both countries — South Africa and Kenya — have a lot of foreigners touring these two countries, some of whom could use that possibility for not good reasons.
“Those are matters that have to be looked at as we move forward,” he told journalists at a joint press conference in Nairobi.
South Africa gave no timelines though this issue has been discussed by the relevant ministers of the two countries for three years.
Instead, he referred the issue to his juniors to handle, something that could take several years to deal with.
South Africa argues it has been eliminating these conditions step-by-step such as reducing the fee from Sh7,100 to Sh4,900, providing for a three-year multiple entry visa for frequent travellers; a ten year multiple entry visa for frequent business travellers; a ten year multiple entry visa for academics holding African passports; issuing of study visa for the duration of study; offering permanent residence to graduates studying within the critical skills category and removal of transit visas for travellers transiting through South African airports.
All these are, however, not useful as long as one must apply visas through third parties, wait long to get or be denied a visa and the fact that you have attached health certificates on your travel documents.
Pretoria’s immigration attitude is not limited to Kenya.
In spite of diplomatic sentiments about pan-Africanism and commitment to trade, Pretoria often looks down upon poorer countries, including those belonging in the same economic bloc with it.
For example, South Africans generally get free entries to Kenya, Uganda, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Burundi, but they demand visas from nationals of all these countries before they set foot on South African soil.
The imbalance may be attributed to the naiveté of government negotiators when drafting these immigration agreements.
But it could also be because of the concessions these poor folks make in exchange for, say, investments from Pretoria.
QUALITY OF PASSPORT
Zuma’s argument however reflected on the quality of Kenya’s passport and even indicted the Immigration Department for not sealing gaps for immigrants.
“We must find solutions to those issues so that with what Africa has agreed. The matter is receiving attention. We have to ensure that there are no loopholes for criminals to take advantage of.”
It may be true about those loopholes considering that Kenya has arrested more than 200 Ethiopians and Eritreans trying to sneak through the country this year alone.
But according to the Passport Index, an interactive website that aggregates immigration data from countries based on their passport and visa policy, South Africa’s passport lags behind tiny islands like the Seychelles and Mauritius, both of who grant Kenyans visas on arrival despite having the most powerful passports on the continent. The latter doesn’t even require a visa at all
From the data, it appears poorer countries are generally more welcoming to foreigners and often allow visas on arrival, visa-free admissions or have simpler ways of obtaining visa.
The list shows that Burundi, Comoros, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Mauritania, Togo and Uganda are ranked in Group One of most welcoming countries. Kenya is in Group 11 where, incidentally, it is the only member.
South Africa, when assessed on the welcoming rank is 58th with a score of 75. South Africa’s visa free score is 60 and visa-on-arrival is 31, making its passport to rank 93rd worldwide.
In comparison, Kenya has 37 score on visa-free ranking and 28 for visa-on-arrival. It ranks 121 globally.
Pretoria’s insistence that people from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Sudan and Eritrea (countries that tail in every respect on the Passport Rank) could be passing through Kenyan borders to travel to South Africa may be reasonable.
But is actually an insult on those who provide the Kenyan passport.