Billions of rands at stake over ‘swallow’ visa backlogs

South Africa, and the Western Cape in particular, stands to lose billions of rands in investment and tourism revenue because of visa backlogs at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

A DHA directive in December warns that the visa department is so backlogged with applications that visitors on 90-day visas planning to extend them for another 90 days will have to leave the country by 29 February unless they receive their visa renewals by 23 February.


This means a potentially foreshortened stay for the so-called ‘swallows’, many of them property and business investors in SA, who migrate to SA to escape the northern hemisphere winter.

Depending on their country of origin, many are granted automatic 90-day visas on arrival, which can be renewed for a further 90 days.

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Those who received their 90-day visas on or before 30 November 2023 and do not receive a renewal by 23 February must “make the necessary arrangement to depart from SA on or before 29 February 2024, to avoid being declared undesirable” says the directive.

Those denied long-term visas and appealing the decisions have until 30 June 2024 to leave the country or risk being declared undesirable. However, they will be allowed to leave and re-enter the country before 30 June 2024 without risk of being declared undesirable. 

Those awaiting a decision on applications for long-term visas are also allowed to stay in the country until 30 June 2024. 

Tourism revenue at stake

Tourism officials in the Western Cape are concerned about the potential impact this will have on seasonal tourism revenue. Moneyweb has been told that several of them are engaging with the DHA to find ways to clear the visa backlog. 

Read: SA risks losing business investment over visa ‘chaos’ [Nov 2023]

“This is going to cost the country dearly in terms of tourism revenue and investment,” says Gillian Saunders, an independent tourism consultant.

“These 90-day extensions are incredibly valuable because they bring 90 extra days of high-spending semi-residents. Then, separately, we have Indian and Chinese visitors struggling to get visas to come to SA, and a lot of people have missed weddings and conferences because they could not get visas on time.

“Many other countries in the world are far more accommodating to tourists and will issue 180-day visas on entry, depending on your passport. The swallows or seasonal tourists bring an enormous amount of revenue into the country, and many have businesses and properties here where they employ locals.

“It really should not be that hard to make it more attractive for them to visit SA,” she adds.

“We could do this by granting them an automatic 180 days on arrival instead of having to make them run through hoops to extend their 90-day visas.”


SA introduced an electronic or e-visa system in February 2022 for travellers from 14 countries, which allows them to apply online and receive their visas via email within a few days. The countries eligible for e-visas are Cameroon, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda.

The plan is to extend this list to include Australia, Canada, the US and EU member states. But until that happens, visitors from these countries will have to continue applying for visas through a South African embassy. 

SA needs a functioning e-visa system to halt tourism stagnation [May 2023]
Positive steps towards solving SA’s visa problems [May 2023]

Home Affairs’ dysfunctional’

The DHA has been slammed by human rights and immigration attorneys as dysfunctional, in large measure because of the way it has handled immigration and exemption permits for Zimbabweans and Lesotho citizens.

By the DHA’s own admission, barely a day passes without it appearing (negatively) in the press. It has been forced to answer scores of court cases in recent years, most of which it lost, and has also been slapped with court orders of which it was not even aware.  

Read: Visa chaos: How good policy can falter in execution

Saunders says SA has some of the best tourism assets in the world, and Cape Town was recently voted the second-best city in the world by Time Out, beating out London, Berlin and Madrid.

That kind of endorsement is worth millions of US dollars in free advertising, but it is being squandered by bureaucrats unable after years of trying to handle the volume of applications that far smaller countries process in far less time with far fewer resources.

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