A critically ill Skills List

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the ANC govt's bizarre and destructive immigration policies


Last week, the government issued its Critical Skills List. This is the basis on which South Africa will condescend to allow the world’s brightest, most skilled and most talented people, to seek a new life on our shores.

The list, delivered by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) after two painful years of intellectual constipation, is a sad waste of time. To start with, the last thing in the world that this government wants is clever, capable people. Especially not foreigners who might show us up.

Highly competent foreigners are not, as elsewhere in the world, embraced for the well-researched role they play in fuelling economic growth. Instead, they’re seen by South Africans — including the government — as an existential threat to a workforce that is, on the whole, steadily becoming less educated and less skilled.

Imported merit is also a political threat. This is a country where job appointments must fit into increasingly restrictive demographic strait-jackets and career advancement, especially in the public sector, is often the result of tokenism and connections within the African National Congress.

Such considerations are tacit in the reference terms of the List, which identifies 126 narrowly defined jobs that qualify for a possible skilled immigration visa. The DHA states it will take cognisance not only of the applicants' potential contribution to the economy but also their impact on “existing labour standards and the rights and expectations of South African workers”. 

Not only is the Skills List already long out of date but it was compiled by exactly the type of people who cause one to appreciate the need for imported talent. Remarkably, for a document produced under the ministerial oversight of Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, himself a medical doctor and the previous minister of Health, it will permit the immigration of general practitioners but not medical specialists, of which there is a crippling shortage. 

Ann Bernstein, head of the Centre for Development Enterprise, told Business Day that such a restrictive approach will be of no benefit to the economy. “I don’t understand why a country with a massive skills shortage wastes money and time trying to work out what highly specific skills to let in,” said Bernstein. “The modern economy does not work the way the compilers of the skills list assume it does.”

One can find support for Bernstein’s cynicism about the government’s views of what makes for a vital economy by looking at whom it seeks to employ. Last week the public service’s job website listed 2,500 jobs to be filled. Almost a fifth were for top-level paper-pushers — assistant, deputy and chief directors — while barely 200 required real skills: 174 nurses, nine medical specialists and 20 accountants.

South Africa’s problem is not only the existing knowledge and skills deficit but the growing future one. 

One of the buzz phrases of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration is “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Or 4IR as it snazzily abbreviates to. 

No government minister worthy of his or her salt omits it from their department’s mission. And it’s a hardy perennial in Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address (SONAs) and Tito Mboweni’s budget speeches. 

Just in case, you’ve like me been snoozing at the back of the class, some quick catch up courtesy of the World Economic Forum. The first industrial revolution was the harnessing of steam to mechanise production in the mid-18th century; 2IR was the harnessing of electricity for mass production in the mid-19th century; 3IR was the 20th-century move to automated production through digital technologies; and 4IR is “a fusion of technologies to blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”.

In a South African context, 4IR is seen by the government as a solution to our economic woes and is the critical component to Ramaphosa’s dreams of smart cities and bullet trains. That is, if only the unions would evolve beyond 1IR, Eskom could power up even a 2IR, and the communication ministry would release the broadband necessary to sustain a modest 3IR.

In 2018, in Ramaphosa’s first SONA, the president decreed a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission. Moving with a speed commensurate with the urgency of the challenge, its major achievement, in time for SONA2, was changing its name to the Presidential Commission on 4IR and the appointment of 30 panellists, chosen mostly based on their contribution to the correct race and gender demographics.

In the Commission’s report, completed shortly before SONA4 last year, it counselled us to try to perceive the shape of our economic future not by looking at the colonial era industrial revolutions, but rather at the remarkable technical prowess and skills at mineral extraction and trade displayed by the 12th-century Kingdom of Mapungubwe, in what is now Limpopo province.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission also saw South Africa’s 4IR as best being driven by the state and consequently set as its first tasks, to be achieved within three months, the creation of a 4IR Implementation Co-ordination Council, as well as an Artificial Intelligence Institute. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest voids in the report, and there are several, is a failure to address the lack of highly-skilled workers necessary for a knowledge economy.

Nor does the report make mention of the ongoing depletion of our existing base of knowledge workers. This despite the government in its White Paper on migration estimating that for every professional allowed to enter South Africa, eight left, a ratio that’s unlikely to have improved since. 

According to that 2017 White Paper, about 120,000 people with professional qualifications emigrated between 1989 and 2003, with the number growing by 9% a year, a rate that has probably accelerated. Yet DHA granted only about 2,000 “exceptional skills” visas annually.

Rather than turning to the skills recruitment practices of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, let’s look at how the developed nations handle their seemingly insatiable appetites for knowledge workers. One of the methods is to encourage students from all around the world into their tertiary institutions, then trying to get the top ones to remain after graduating, with the lure of bursaries and work visas. 

South Africa, too, has a large influx of bright students from elsewhere in Africa. But despite the government’s talk of a need for “a legal route for [African] economic migrants”, in reality, it does everything possible to get rid of them the moment they graduate. 

“At the end of the day,” says a higher education specialist who chose not be named, “the South African government is only interested in jobs for locals. It fails to understand that these African graduates — many of them with science and technology degrees — are like most economic migrants, job makers, not job takers.”

Now, if only we had a Critical Skills List for ANC politicians.

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