Nairobi has granted South Africans additional time to visit Kenya without visas, pointing to a thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Interior secretary Joseph Nkaissery says in a legal notice published last Friday that South Africans can now visit and stay in Kenya without a visa for up to three months, up from the previous 30 days.
The notice says South African “civil servants, holders of diplomatic, official or ordinary passports” can visit Kenya without visas “for a period exceeding (sic) ninety (90) days”. The Ministry of Interior later clarified that there was an error in the notice, and that it ought to have read a period “not exceeding ninety (90) days”.
The extended visa free travel notice further tips the balance of diplomatic relations in favour of South Africa, which has been tightening visa rules for Kenyans.
Kenya has long expressed discomfort with the many hurdles its citizens travelling to South Africa continue to face with little response from Pretoria.
In particular, Nairobi has raised concerns over the high costs of South African visas as well as the extended processing period, which now takes at least five days.
The situation has been particularly unfair given that South Africans can get visas on arrival in Kenya.
Mr Nkaissery’s decision may, however, be a signal that Pretoria is preparing to reciprocate the move by easing entry of Kenyans to South Africa.
President Uhuru Kenyatta had raised Kenya’s concerns over South Africa’s tough visa rules with President Jacob Zuma during his visit to Nairobi last year, but Mr Zuma refused to commit on measures to ease them.
South Africa claimed that its visa rules are meant to insulate it from irregular migration, a sore topic in a country that has suffered numerous bouts of xenophobic attacks against foreigners.
“We have to ensure that there are no loopholes for criminals to take advantage of,” Mr Zuma said in response to questions on his country’s visa policies.
Kenya’s decision to issue a travel warning to civil servants visiting South Africa last month threatened to rekindle the diplomatic row, but South Africa made no public response to the memo.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised Kenyans travelling to South Africa to be wary of rising crime in Johannesburg, including armed robberies, carjacking and burglary.
Ideally, Kenya and South Africa are supposed to be dealing with each other under the principle of reciprocity — meaning that benefits extended by one country are mirrored by the other.
In May 2016, the two countries agreed to cut visa fees and to issue three-year multiple entry visas for frequent travellers.
South Africa agreed to issue ten-year multiple entry visas for business travellers and academics and scrapped transit visas for Kenyans travelling through South Africa.
Kenya and South Africa are important trading partners. South African firms such as MultiChoice and SABMiller have expanded into Kenya while thousands of Kenyans are frequent travellers to South Africa for business and leisure.
The value of trade between the two countries has, however, been on the decline.
Last year, Kenya’s exports to South Africa fell from Sh4.35 billion to Sh4.15 billion while imports from the country fell 31.7 per cent to Sh41.86 billion.