At the beginning of June, South Africa imposed two new visa regulations for families traveling to South Africa. The first was that any child who exits the country must have an unabridged birth certificate if they are to enter the country. The second was that tourists from countries that are required to have a visa now have to appear in person during the visa application process in order to obtain a biometric visa.
New data published by Statistics South Africa at the end of last month show that these policies are beginning to have an effect. A notice about the new regulations issued more than a year ago resulted in a decline in tourist arrivals between March 2014 and March 2015 of 68 323 travellers, or 20%. Air China cancelled a planned direct route between China and South Africa. To put these numbers into perspective: the 2010 World Cup in South Africa generated approximately 300 000 additional (non-SADC) tourists in the year of the event, or an increase, controlling for the trend, of 18.7% (Peeters, Matheson and Szymanski 2014). The notice warning travellers about new visa regulations – note: not the actual regulations themselves, the impact of which we will only know later this year – has thus already nullified the impact of the 2010 World Cup, a mega-event that cost us several billion to host (and continues to be a burden for tax payers). That is an absolute travesty.
Whether the decline in tourist numbers can be entirely attributed to the new visa regulations is of course not clear. Last year’s Ebola epidemic in West Africa (and, dare I add, the United States) would have affected foreign travellers’ plans, while the xenophobic attacks a few months ago in Durban and Johannesburg certainly changed visitor itineraries. The latter was perfectly illustrated by an international winter school I teach at Stellenbosch University: almost all of the Singaporean students (half the class) who would have attended the course cancelled their trips in the week following the xenophobic attacks. The sad reality is that the revenue we generate from these courses go to Stellenbosch students applying for exchanges in Europe and elsewhere; the xenophobic attacks has denied dozens of South African students the opportunity to study abroad.
And on top of all this comes the new visa regulations. The aim, according to the Department of Home Affairs, is to prevent child trafficking across South Africa’s borders. When questioned about the number of trafficking cases that the new policies has prevented, department spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said yesterday: “Child trafficking is difficult to detect but whether the number is five or 10 or 30 000, there is no denying that child trafficking is a reality in South Africa and we can’t tell the parents of trafficked children that their children aren’t important.”
Child trafficking is an incredible injustice. The stories of those caught in its grip are traumatizing. But so, too, are the stories of mothers who lose their jobs. The new visa regulations will result (or have already) in the lay-off of thousands of mothers (because the tourism industry mostly employ women and often poor, rural women). These mothers will be unable to feed and support their children, the very same children that are supposed to benefit from the policy. But will we hear stories about these mothers? Probably not. The causal link between the new policy and their job security is vague; the only message they get is that they don’t need to come to work anymore because ‘in the light of the current business climate, the company is forced to retrench’.
Everything has a price. Yes, even the life of a child trafficking victim. (Bear in mind that since 2012 the South African Police has only opened 23 cases of child trafficking.) Politicians and bureaucrats continually have to decide between spending on hospitals (which clearly reduce deaths) and other types of spending, like teacher salaries. If human life is infinitely valuable, then we should spend our entire budget on clinics and hospitals. But we don’t. We trade off lives saved in hospitals versus other priorities, like maintaining a well-functioning economy.
Similarly, we cannot price two dozen child trafficking cases more valuable than protecting thousands of jobs in the tourism industry. If we do, many more children will suffer as a result.