I wish, first and foremost, to thank you most sincerely for the opportunity to address your very important conference.
Usually when we engage with international students, we tend to focus narrowly on immigration issues.
We tend to focus on administrative issues relating to application for, and renewal of, student visas, such as wait times and fees.
Without minimizing these issues, I think it is important we consider the wider importance of international students in South Africa.
We should recall that South Africa has a long and proud history of educating leaders from throughout Southern Africa.
The University of Fort Hare counts as its alumni, eminent Africans such as Robert Mugabe (President of Zimbabwe), Seretse Khama (First President of Botswana), Julius Nyerere (Former President of Tanzania), and Kenneth Kaunda (First President of Zambia), among many others.
The role these leaders played in the liberation of South Africa and the ongoing warm and fraternal relations with our regional neighbors, demonstrates the importance of the experience you have here as students, the personal connections you make, and the social and political discourses you participate in.
You are not merely customers of our educational institution, receiving a service for a few years before returning home.
You are important members of our academic community and society more broadly, and it is in South Africa’s enlightened self-interest to care about the experience you have of our country while here.
Of course, from an international migration perspective, international students are important to our society for several reasons.
Accordingly, I hope during your deliberations you will transcend these issues pertinent to students and students’ life, important as they are, no doubt, but you will begin, as I advise, to address broader issues that have to do with the political and economic future of our continent.
I challenge you to contribute to our pan-Africanist and internationalist culture, spirit and outlook as the African continent.
Amongst you must emerge future Kwame Nkrumah’s, Frantz Fanon’s, Ben Bella’s, Thomas Sankara’s, Robert Mugabe’s, Joshua Nkomo’s, Samora Machel’s, Agostinho Neto’s, Oliver Tambo’s, Nelson Mandela’s, Julius Nyerere’s, Kenneth Kaunda’s, Patrice Lumumba’s, Eduardo Mondlane’s and other eminent Pan-Africanist giants that liberated our continent from the colonial yoke.
The conditions that created them do not exist today; but this is a different epoch that holds its own promise.
You must help both to change and deepen the discourse about Africa in an environment where in this world in which we live only negative narratives are being churned out.
Another reason I am excited to be addressing this conference therefore is the importance of international students from an international migration perspective.
International students are important to our society for several reasons.
Universities are sites of learning and exchange, and are enriched by having students from other parts of the world.
The diversity of knowledge, experience and perspective that you bring, enhances the richness of our universities as centers of thought, discourse and cross-pollination.
Without you, they would be diminished, provincial spaces.
The same goes for the relationships you form with your South African counterparts while here.
Through the friendships and intellectual partnerships you form, you expose South Africans to the rest of the world, creating connections for them to pursue, and sparking their interest in other countries which they will hopefully go on to travel to.
Many if not most international students in South Africa, are Africans, and in particular are from our regional neighbors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Contributing to the development of Africa, integrating our economies, and growing ever closer politically and socially, are core tenets of South Africa’s foreign policy.
The presence of our brothers and sisters from around the continent in our educational institutions is thus an important and valued linkage from an Africanist perspective.
While here, you are developing and honing skills and knowledge from which our country can and must benefit for as long as you are here.
At the same time, your participation in broader discourses about the political and economic future of our continent ensures that we can forge common visions and symbiotically influence one another.
Therefore, as the custodian of international migration in South Africa, I have an interest in minimizing obstacles for you to apply your skills in South Africa while you reside here.
You see, from an international migration perspective, all countries are interested in attracting and retaining skilled immigrants.
No country can produce all of the skills it needs all of the time.
The United States, despite having the most universities in the world, benefits from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills of international students from all over the world, including Africa.
Logically, it is even more important for a developing country like South Africa, which is trying to build an industrial and knowledge economy, to be able to access skills from abroad through immigration.
One of the obstacles globally for immigrants to work in the fields in which they are qualified and competent is the non-recognition of qualifications.
The professional certification systems of the various countries have to be stringent to ensure people coming from other countries whose systems they do not have oversight of actually can do what they claim to be able to.
Many countries grapple administratively with the sheer difficulty of a certification body in the destination country, being certain of what a qualification in a source country means, given that country may have different academic and language systems.
That is before we even get into issues of protectionism and bureaucracy.
This phenomenon is referred to as brain waste.
It is tragic for the individuals involved, who may be refugees fleeing danger or persecution in their home countries, or merely enterprising individuals who merely want to apply their talents in a different country.
It is also tragic for the destination country which then misses out on the impact those immigrants can make if employed.
As I am sure you have gathered by now, international students are particularly important to countries because, having obtained your qualifications here – or at least your most recent qualification – this brain waste can be avoided.
It is for these reasons that the National Development Plan recommended a long term work visa be offered to international students upon graduation.
Accordingly, I directed officials in the Department to recommend options to make it easier for international students in critical skills areas to remain in South Africa after graduating.
We are aware that many of you naturally want to work for a few years in South Africa, before returning home.
Some of you will want to start businesses.
Some of you will want to study further, conduct research and produce knowledge.
Some of you will want to stay in South Africa long term.
Some of you will not, and will want to return home immediately after graduation.
It is important to note that we are in no way encouraging you to abandon your home countries, particularly those of you with bursaries from your governments or other organizations.
We are merely acknowledging that it is natural for international students to want to remain in their destination countries for a period of time, to follow their academic studies with other experience.
We have therefore created a special exemption such that graduates of South African universities in critical skills areas are eligible for permanent residence immediately upon graduation.
We are convinced that this exemption is an important advance both for international students, for our national development and for South African society more broadly.
We launched a new Green Paper on International Migration in June.
It is currently a draft policy, and we are seeking public comment until the end of September.
From there we will incorporate public input and refine the policy further in the form of a White Paper to be presented to Cabinet for approval early next year.
This will form the basis of government policy going forward.
I hope you will read and comment on it, it seeks to reposition international migration as a phenomenon which is both natural and largely positive, if properly managed.
It can yield enormous benefits for our society, and create beneficial linkages with our region, continent, and the world.
One of the critical areas of the policy is the proposal that our discourse on nation building and social cohesion evolve and expand beyond a narrow focus on so-called blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds, to include the many guests in our country, as well as the new South Africans, created by naturalisation.
We hope you will be part of the national discourse on the new policy, and bring your experiences at home and in South Africa to bear in our discussion.