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Is South Africa Creating A New Apartheid?

02/24/2016 02:39 EST | Updated 02/24/2017 05:12 EST
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I'm standing outside the VFS Global application centre for South African visas in Accra. Dressed in all black, the glare of a 30-degree sun is bright enough to bake, but I feel nothing. Or maybe that's an attempt to de-escalate the dramatic sense of feeling everything all at once.

My application for a short-term visa in line with pursuing a consulting project with a Johannesburg-based non-profit, has been rejected -- twice. The first time, it was because "I did not meet the requirements." This was confusing to both my employer and myself, as we had followed the application process to a T. When we asked why it had been rejected, we were told to contact the South African embassy in Accra. In the rare instance when the South African embassy in Accra answers their phone or responds to emails, they do not provide feedback on applications. When I showed up in person, a tired looking man behind a glass window told me to leave; the embassy only caters to long-term visas and he had a long line and no time to deal with my rejection issues.

The second rejection, at least, came with a reason: "Applicant on internal control list." I had been rejected again, because I had been rejected the first time. It is likely my application was not even looked at.

Each rejection took three weeks to process and GHS 820 in fees and associated printing costs, not including the opportunity cost of forgoing other opportunities in pursuit of the one at hand. Even at Ghana's rapidly depreciating conversion rate of roughly $200, GHS 820 isn't a ridiculously large sum as visas fees go. Academic pursuits and apparently misguided attempts at becoming a global citizen, have led to my spending thousands of dollars on immigration visas over the two decades I have been travelling, studying and working outside my home country. My double-decker passport has proved resilient through it all; surviving everything from an unfortunate hit-and-run on an icy street in Montreal, to acute water damage in Mumbai. But this cut may be the deepest.

Dramatic much? I think to myself while squinting judgmentally at a honking taxi driver who just won't seem to take the hint that I'm waiting for someone else. I wonder if that's how they see us, other Africans seeking to admission into South Africa: like an annoying mosquito whose sounds you tolerate in lieu of being able to slap off. Or maybe I'm just bitter. I text Olu -- a Nigerian friend from business school -- two words: "Rejected again." He texts back: straight-faced, wide-eyed emoji, followed by a string of 'whats?' and 'hows?' Three months ago, Olu was in South Africa on a similar consulting project at a financial services firm. He can't seem to wrap his head around the situation. Unsurprisingly, he'd used his British passport. Yes, I'm bitter. South Africa grants visa-free access to several countries on 90 and 30-day terms. Only 14 of the 124 visa-exempt nations are African and Ghana isn't one of them.

Maybe it's dramatic to call this a new apartheid. But a quick search as I wallow in the glare of an unforgiving sun and my own self-pity reveals countless stories of unexplained visa refusals and similarly stringent refusals from South African embassies, to provide reasons for them. Of course, it could be worse. Generation Citizen's Scott Warren recounts the story of Themba Maphosa, a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, who is one of many to have fallen victim to forced deportation without cause. He describes Johannesburg as a place where "each nationality has its own enclave." It clashes with the images I've seen scattered across my Facebook feed of a city rich in culture or, as Olu described it, "kizomba nights and bright lights."

My friend Nii, another Ghanaian MBA grad, spent a year and a half waiting for a South African work permit. I remember listening in humor-tinged horror as he recounted stories of arguments with embassy personnel through glass. Maybe it's a misguided sense of entitlement that left me in shock when I encountered that exact situation, only a few weeks later. 'But how could they reject you? With your degrees from McGill and Oxford?' people said of the initial rejection. I was equally dumbfounded. In the weeks prior, I had allowed myself to revel in the equally disturbing thought of being "special," separate from other, perhaps less-credentialed African nationals seeking admission into South Africa. Because, as another shocked friend commented, "What Oxford graduate is looking to get into South Africa, so that they can scurry away into its hinterlands once their stingily-granted single entry visas run out?"

A passport that the world respects could open doors to places, opportunities and experiences I would have never thought to pursue.

But South Africa's immigration issues run deep and beyond my own self-aggrandizing musings. While hers was an inter-company transfer filed in London, my sister Mabel's visa application process was not without its own set of frustrations and extended wait times. She is now based in Durban, a hotbed in recent uprisings against African immigrants, supposedly ignited by a Zulu King's speech. The South African government's lukewarm response was reminiscent of similar violent xenophobic outbreaks in 2008 that left 44 dead and 20,000 injured, robbed and displaced.

Still, South Africa's immigration restrictions are just one example of the many challenges Africans face when it comes to global mobility. Maybe I should have ditched my Ghanaian passport for a Canadian one when I had the chance, living there for seven years. The thought is fleeting but with a lingering sharpness, like popping a pulp of lime. I can already hear my father saying, "Work on your Canadian papers. You don't need to use it. It's really just a precaution." In the world of immigration law, a "first-world" passport is more than a mere precaution -- it's a panacea.

A passport that the world respects could open doors to places, opportunities and experiences I would have never thought to pursue. Exhausted and tired of waiting for the ride I was promised that still hasn't arrived, I flag down another honking taxi that just won't take a hint, and head home.

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