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South Africa’s new tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu faces mounting challenges

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Wednesday, 25 August 2021 12:34

Lindiwe Sisulu and President Cyril Ramaphosa during the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) Agreement during the 10th Extraordinary Session of the African Union (AU) in Kigali, Rwanda Tuesday March 21, 2018. (AP Photo)

Lindiwe Sisulu, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and the daughter of African National Congress elders Walter and Albertina Sisulu, has been appointed the country’s new tourism minister following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga argues that Sisulu, who was beset by troubles at her previous portfolio, raises questions about whether the executive takes tourism seriously.

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) has welcomed Sisulu’s appointment to the ministry citing her experience in international relations as positive, considering the current challenges facing the sector.

“We welcome the new minister. We believe she comes with experience that will lift tourism. We work with foreign countries. She has been at foreign affairs [international relations]. We will work with her,” says Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, the CEO of TBCSA.

The Black Business Council (BBC), South Africa’s biggest black business lobby group, has also welcomed Sisulu’s nomination and expects her to continue with her predecessor’s pro-transformation stance.

In particular, the BBC is eager for the new minister to rebuff court challenges instituted by AfriForum and Solidarity against the Tourism Equity Fund, much like the incumbent.

We need to work on having South Africa removed from the travel red lists, or level 4 restrictions…

Sisulu has served in the executive administrations of Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and, now, Ramaphosa under various portfolios, including intelligence, defence, housing and international relations. More recently, under the Ramaphosa administration, she was the minister of human settlements, water and sanitation.

“They took a minister from water and sanitation, which has been chopped into pieces, to tourism. At water and sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu had serious crises: tender problems, ineffectiveness. Then you take that minister to tourism?” Mathekga says. “Tourism needs to be taken seriously.”

High stakes, high rewards

South Africa’s tourism trade is serious business. It is a major contributor to the GDP and employs an estimated 1.5 million people. However, Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on the sector.

The 2020 tourism report from Statistics South Africa showed that foreign arrivals into the country, also known as inbound travel, dropped to 2.8 million that year from 10.2 million the previous year.

The slow pace of South Africa’s vaccination programme – which has been partly hampered by global supply constraints and the emergence of new Covid-19 variants – has resulted in key source markets placing the country on travel red lists. This has dented South Africa’s image as a choice destination for travel.

The most prominent of the key source markets are the US and the UK, which are South Africa’s third and leading source markets respectively.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourism spending in South Africa comprised 60% domestic and 44% international. This makes it pivotal that “… we have a good image and an understanding of what is going on in our source markets outside of South Africa,” says Tshivhengwa.

Hit the ground running

“We need to work on having South Africa removed from the travel red lists, or level 4 restrictions, that countries have placed us on in terms of travel advisories. We hope that the new minister will come in and hit the ground running to solve those issues,” the TBCSA boss says.

Although the US has placed South Africa on level 4, it does permit its citizens to travel to the country. Although Washington does not require fully vaccinated citizens to quarantine once they return home if they have travelled to South Africa, Pretoria still remains on the travel red list.

The situation with the UK, South Africa’s leading source market, is more restrictive. Not only does the UK strongly advise against travel to South Africa, but it also requires citizens who have travelled to the country to quarantine upon return at a government-designated hotel. This comes at a cost of more than £2,000 ($2746), according to Tshivhengwa.

“That discourages people from wanting to travel to South Africa,” adds Tshivhengwa. “We’ve said to the UK government that, at least, allow those … [citizens] who have been vaccinated to travel and go back without going through that costly quarantine. The cost of £2,000 is prohibitive.”

We hope the new minister will continue with that fight.

Solving the problem would have to begin at home by initiating discussions with the respective countries’ ambassadors who are in South Africa, “so they [ambassadors] can send a positive message about the work that we are doing,” Tshivhengwa says.

September is traditionally the start of the tourism season in South Africa, but the TBCSA has tempered expectations for 2021 because of the red lists. However, long term, the organisation is more optimistic about the outlook and anticipates a strong rebound.

That fighting spirit

For Kganki Matabane, CEO of the BBC, transformation will be key. “We worked well with the previous minister. In particular, on the relief funds. She was pro-transformation. We hope the new minister will do the same, specifically push for programmes and funds that are more targeted at Black business[es],” he said.

The BBC’s assessment of tourism is that the sector remains untransformed. In the South African context, this means that tourism is predominantly dominated by White players or businesses.

The equity fund was intended to level the playing field, but AfriForum and Solidarity’s court application to interdict the rollout of the fund was granted in April. The previous minister had opposed the court challenge.

As a result of the recent court outcome, “the fund has been suspended,” according to Matabane. “We hope the new minister will continue with that fight.”

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