Is that a (South African) passport in your pocket?
(Getty)
  • South African passports now rank as the 58th most useful in the world, down two places, in a major index.
  • Visa-free access for South Africans to the rest of the world hasn't actually declined, though; the change is a relative one.
  • Borders hardened as a Covid-19 measure will not likely just open up again, some travel experts believe.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Travelling on a South African passport has become harder in the last year – relatively speaking – an update to a major index shows.

And, as for just about everyone outside the highly developed nations of the global north, there is little prospect of improvement in the short term.

South Africa now ranks as having the 58th most powerful passports in the world, measured by how many countries will accept a passport at its border for access without a visa, in the fourth-quarter version of the Henley Passport Index released this week.

That is well above neighbours such as Namibia (73rd) and Zimbabwe (83rd), but well below countries not traditionally considered powerhouses, such as Micronesia (53rd) and Tonga (44th).

South Africa was at a stable number 56 in 2020, thanks to visa-free access to 101 countries at the time. That access has actually slightly improved in the year since – in absolute numbers – to 103 countries, even as the relative power of South African passports declined.

Viewed over a longer term, South Africans' access to the rest of the world has greatly declined.

SA's Henley Passport Index history
South Africa's ranking in the index since 2006, when SA ranked at number 36. (Henley & Partners)

The index is based on data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Covid-19 has done developing countries few favours, Henley & Partners says; its index shows that countries with lower-ranking passports often reopened their borders after pandemic-related restrictions, but without reciprocation from developed countries.

"This has created an ever-widening gap in travel freedom even for fully vaccinated travellers from countries at the lower end of the passport power ranking who remain locked out of most of the world," the company said.

The difference can be dramatic. Joint index leader Japan has visa-free access to 192 countries, but currently allows almost no foreigners across its borders. Joint second-ranked Germany has a passport that allows immediate access to 190 countries, but now denies access to citizens from nearly 100 countries.

That, and South Africans' freedom of movement generally, may not change any time soon. Political analysts have warned that the concept of open borders may remain tainted after the pandemic, while countries without significant leverage may find it hard to negotiate or renegotiate bilateral treaties that would make for reciprocal visa-free access.

If anything, the gap in passport power between rich and poorer countries is likely to increase as pandemic-related restrictions become entrenched, Henley said.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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