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Streamlined visa system is envoy's legacy

Updated: 2014-08-08 07:23
By Bob Wekesa (China Daily Africa)

Streamlined visa system is envoy's legacy

Busisiwe Mkhebane-Tshehla, the former head of immigration at the South African embassy in Beijing. Provided to China Daily

The Lower barriers she implemented now make it smoother to obtain entry to South Africa

When Busisiwe Mkhebane-Tshehla, the former head of immigration at the South African embassy in Beijing, left the city at the beginning of July, it was clear she would be missed - as evident from the farewell parties in her honor.

At a recent restaurant event, her African and Chinese friends and acquaintances spoke highly of how she had made issuing visas smoother and of her being such an asset in Beijing's African community.

Mkhebane-Tshehla took up her appointment as head of the immigration and visa section a little more than four years ago. She had previously been director of refugee services in Pretoria.

"I was fortunate when I first arrived because I had been to Beijing and Shanghai earlier in a different capacity," she says. "So I had an idea how to acclimatize A decision was taken that Beijing needed the services of a senior officer to help streamline everything for volume of trade and increased consular requirements had increased in mind boggling proportions."

As she and her son Mpilo and daughter Pheladi left Pretoria, they knew they would need to be "culturally intelligent", she says.

"We were going to blend in and enjoy life the Chinese way rather than just surviving. We were going to learn the Chinese way of doing things rather than be stuck with our South African experiences."

Any apprehensions they had were quickly dispelled with the help of Chinese colleagues at the embassy who helped the family settle in.

She acknowledges the warm welcome by the former ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga, now envoy to Ethiopia and the African Union. His inspirational, results-oriented approach spurred her into getting down to work with gusto, she says.

"I quickly realized that unlike in my cozy former position, where I had sufficient manpower, I would need to pull up my sleeves as there was a shortage of staff. There was an overwhelming and ever-mounting number of visa applications that we needed to process at the same time as going ahead with the restructuring process."

That involved standardizing consular services, she says.

Streamlined visa system is envoy's legacy

"For instance, applicants for visas at our Shanghai office might be required to give six months worth of bank statements while an applicant at the Beijing office might be asked for only three months."

A requirement that all visa applicants deposit 15,000 yuan ($2,400) with South African authorities was also problematic, she says.

"We were getting complaints from senior government officials and managers of reputable companies who thought the deposit system was not only demeaning but was also steeped in bureaucracy when applicants wanted to get reimbursed. In some cases the applicants lost their receipts."

The system was more focused on raising the bar for visa and work permit applications instead of making the application process easier, in line with the country's goal of attracting Chinese visitors, investors or tourists alike.

"My brief was to ensure an optimum balance between maximizing the benefits of the growing number of Chinese travelers to South Africa while minimizing risks such as illegal immigration."

The system she had taken over had been based on the principle of "reject, reject, reject", says Mkhebane-Tshehla, a law graduate of Limpopo University and holder of an MBA from the University of South Africa.

"We embarked on re-engineering the customer service culture. We went out of our way to emphasize soft issues, embracing applicants and seeing them as clients. We didn't want to be aloof and come across as intent on placing hurdles in the way of applicants but rather wished to offer help as a service and duty."

The embassy started issuing visas on the basis of the profiles of applicants rather than requiring a deposit from everyone. Reputable applicants from Chinese government agencies, research institutions and investment companies deemed not to be a flight risk as well as those who had good international travel profiles were exempted from paying the deposit.

The restructuring went further when visa application and issuance services were outsourced and relocated to offices not far from the embassy, where most staff are Chinese competent in English.

An immediate benefit was that applicants could access services from 9 am to 3 pm, compared with 9am to midday at the embassy, and they could make inquiries online.

Tourism is the biggest draw for Chinese travelers to South Africa. Agencies such as the South African Tourism Board, South African Airways and Brand South Africa promote the country in China.

Mkhebane-Tshehla says that to reduce the risk of illegal migration, it was decided that it would be preferable to work with Chinese tour companies rather than individual tourists.

Under an agreement between South Africa and China, Chinese tourists travel in groups, and travel agencies or tour companies handle visa applications. When the tourists return to China, the agencies or companies are supposed to return the group's passports to South African authorities so visas can be cancelled. That is because in the past visa applicants have used the multiple entry visas system to gain permission for ostensibly short stays but then remained in South Africa or other African countries.

"The tour companies know that if any of the tourists traveling in their name disappears, their reputation is on the line," Mkhebane-Tshehla says.

Chinese nationals seeking work permits or longer periods of stay in South Africa are better off doing so at the consular services level in Beijing or Shanghai rather than travelling on tourism or visiting visa and attempting to change their status when they are in the country, she says.

Mkhebane-Tshehla says she will miss just about everything about Beijing, but most of all "the good security here, knowing how crime is a problem in South Africa and the shopping, given Beijing's many offerings".

For China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/08/2014 page28)

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