Tourists? Who needs 'em?

Andrew Donaldson on Malusi Gigaba's brave efforts to fight off those free-spending foreigners

WE were just wondering, here at the Mahogany Ridge, about Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s bonzo porkie that some 30 000 children were being trafficked in or through South Africa each year.

It was once said there were three types of falsehood: lies, damned lies and statistics. That suggestion, popularised by Mark Twain, may have held a certain currency back in the late 19th century, but it seems hopelessly antiquated and inadequate these days; the ranks of dishonesty have in recent times swollen to include the official version, market research and shareholder interests, to name a few.

And now we have cabinet ministers’ replies to questions in parliament. For it was a query from the Democratic Alliance’s Haniff Hoosen about child trafficking – the alleged basis for the disastrous new visa regulations – that resulted in what many have generously described as a wee exaggeration from Gigaba.

According to Hoosen, only 23 cases of child trafficking have been uncovered in the past three years. Gigaba, he said, was grossly distorting the figure “to save his own skin” and legitimise the draconian visa regulations that are killing the country’s tourism industry. 

For the record, Gigaba has denied he made up the figure but did suggest, though, that others may have done so on his behalf. On average, he explained, home affairs officials visited three shelters a quarter and by interviewing “designated social workers” were able to ascertain why and how such victims entered the country. 

From this, it’s unclear exactly how the officials then arrived at the figure of 30 000 cases from just a monthly chat with persons who admittedly do, as a matter of course, talk up problems. For all we know, a pocket calculator may been involved and some fiddling with string. But the main thing is that Gigaba is sticking to his guns. Even if they’re aimed at his feet. He can be rather pigheaded in that way.

For instance, has he listened to his own colleagues? No. Every economic policy document appears to have been ignored here. The National Development Plan, the Ministry of Economic Development’s New Growth Path and the Department of Trade and Industry’s Industrial Policy Action Plan all detail how tourism could play a huge role in job creation. The left hand, you could say, is completely unaware of the right hand’s existence. 

Was there consultation with the tourism industry before the implementation of this basket case policy? No. Did they study or commission any impact assessment of any sort? You must be joking. Did they bother to listen to those who warned that this visa regime was rubbish? Oh, please. Two words: Home Affairs. 

So the tourists have gone. According to a report by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, the country lost 66 000 foreign visitors between May and December last year. 

While these tourists would have spent some R886-million while on holiday here, the “total direct, indirect and induced” loss to the country’s economy as a result of their absence amounted to some R2.6-billion – ten Nkandlas! – and a potential loss of more than 5 800 jobs, the council said.

“In 2015,” they continued, “the number of lost foreign tourists due to changes in the immigration regulations is likely to increase to 100 000, with a direct tourism spend of R1.4-billion and the total net loss to the South African GDP of around R4.1-billion and a loss of 9 300 jobs.”

The big mystery, though, is why Gigaba has so mulishly persisted with this disaster. We haven’t seen such wilful, obdurate stupidity from government in the face of common sense since . . . well, maybe last week. 

But to what end? Who profits from this misguided nonsense? In most other government scandals, you shake the nearest tree and out falls one of the president’s relatives. In this case, however, the earth is so scorched there are no trees to shake.

Here at the Ridge, we have a vague suspicion. Could it be the visa requirements are not meant to save children from traffickers so much as to spare South Africans from demeaning and menial jobs in the tourism sector?

Were we liberated to become a nation of bellhops? Waiters? Kitchen staffers? Tour guides? Sellers of gewgaws made from ostrich eggs and wire and porcupine quills outside the gates to national parks? Lodge owners? Grinning as you fetch and carry for buffoonish Austrians or dance and sing in traditional gear for Chinese visitors? Who sometimes tip handsomely and sometimes don’t?

There is no dignity in such labour. Far better to be one of those officials who must now scrutinise the travel documents of all those non-arriving foreign arrivals.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.