NEWLY appointed Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor will step into a department that has received plaudits for the implementation of a largely successful turnaround strategy, which has seen it improve services such as the issuing of identity documents and passports.
Ms Pandor, who was at the helm of the education ministry before taking on the much smaller science and technology portfolio, will have to work with an executive management team bolstered by its successes and their loyalty to and respect for former minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who has taken up the post of African Union Commission chairwoman.
Last month, Ms Dlamini-Zuma said that whoever took over the Department of Home Affairs should continue from where she and her team had left off, and that starting over would "create a mess".
Change to the current team, headed by director-general Mkuseli Apleni, will bring its own challenges and expectations.
Administratively, Ms Pandor must know that despite its trumpeted successes, the department, which has a budget of more than R5bn and almost 10,000 employees, still faces challenges.
Among the most pressing is dealing with the mounting criticism over the deportation and detention of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.
Its immigration system — including the infamous Lindela Repatriation Centre in Gauteng, a detention centre for foreign nationals found to be in the country illegally — is the subject of an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).
The department has long argued that Lindela is free of human rights abuses and contends that foreign nationals are abusing the immigration system.
On the other hand, human rights nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) — including Lawyers for Human Rights; Doctors without Borders; Section27; and People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty — say human rights abuses are rife. Their concerns sparked a new investigation in May, and indications are that the findings will be damning.
Earlier this year, the SAHRC told the department to come up with "urgent and meaningful measures" to end the ill-treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa.
The NGOs are concerned about what they describe as limited access to medical services, a history of abuses, a lack of oversight and continuing reports of violence.
Lawyers for Human Rights argues that the department’s entire immigration policy is flawed. It says arresting foreign nationals without determining whether they are legitimate asylum seekers is clogging the system and leading to overcrowding as well as unnecessary and unlawful detention.
Manny de Freitas, the Democratic Alliance’s home affairs spokesman, also identifies allegations of human rights abuses as one of the most pressing issues within the department.
"Reports from human rights organisations — such as June 2012’s All Roads Lead to Rejection: Persistent Bias and Incapacity in South African Refugee Status Determination, by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University — indicate that gross human rights violations take place at these centres to the extent that the department is failing to fulfil its core mandate of administering the asylum system," he says.
Department of Home Affairs chief director Modiri Matthews says the department is hamstrung by foreign nationals who have learned how to manipulate the system.
"There is a lot of noncooperation to avoid deportation," he says. "I can assure you that the department would deport in one day (if possible) as there is no interest to keep people in Lindela for longer than is necessary."
He adds: "One must understand that the people in Lindela are there for one purpose, and that is to ensure they are removed from the country. This is done after it is confirmed that the deportee is illegal in South Africa."
All arguments aside, how Ms Pandor deals with this thorny issue will go a long way to determining what her legacy will be.
In addition to the piloting of the new smart-card identity system and the need to improve frontline home affairs offices, a pressing issue is the processing of permanent and temporary residence permit applications for foreign nationals, particularly those who want to work on long- and short-term contracts and those who want to study in South Africa.
In July, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Fatima Chohan said the department had cleared a backlog in applications for temporary residence permits that spanned nearly two years and 46,000 applications.
The department has admitted it still has to clear a similar backlog in permanent residence applications, but says its systems will ensure such backlogs do not recur.
Immigration agencies still complain, however, about delays in processing applications and the effect this has on their clients who need to import the services of highly skilled foreign workers for local projects.
Mr de Freitas says the department must make it easier to apply for official documents.
"Processes should be automated wherever possible so members of the public are able to print standard forms for completion and track applications online without having to visit home affairs offices," he says. "The implementation of processes like these will go a long way towards improving the public’s overall experience during the application process."
While succeeding Ms Dlamini-Zuma is a vote of confidence in Ms Pandor, the department’s perennial challenges and recent track record of relative success will test both her leadership ability and administrative competence.
She can, however, take solace in the fact that the department is now in a much better position than it was before.