Change of attitude to allow the possibility that skills should be actively recruited in a global market is welcome. 

Drastically expanding the pool of skills available to the economy is an essential precondition to finding a way out of the cycle of unemployment, poverty and inequality undermining SA’s future. The most important way of achieving this is to equip South Africans with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills, and the ability to use them productively.

The government is failing on too many fronts in this arena: from basic education to mismanaging funding for university and college education.

The second way is to compensate for the skills shortage by recruiting skilled people abroad.

Recognition of the need for foreign skills to help achieve faster and more inclusive growth has been part of government thinking for well over a decade and repeated commitments have been made to increase the supply. The latest green paper on managing international migration acknowledges that far too little has been achieved to attract foreign skills to SA. It restates the need for these skills and suggests some initiatives for bringing more of them into the country.

How, then, does the green paper shape up in helping SA tackle the yawning skills deficit that is such a hindrance to growth? The answer is that when SA is, in the green paper’s own words, “desperately short of skills”, we need a much simpler, clearer, bolder and more inclusive approach to attracting and retaining skills than the green paper offers.

It makes a useful start in opening up debate on SA’s need for better migration-management policies. There are things to welcome in its general tone and orientation. However, where the document makes detailed proposals, many confusions, ambiguities and unnecessary complications reappear that are familiar from previous rounds of policy making.

The government’s recognition of the need for comprehensive reform of all aspects of international migration is important, as is its readiness to be self-critical about past performance.

The green paper’s emphasis on the need for consensus on policy reform among policy makers in different parts of the government and between the government and civil society is also welcome, as are proposals for migration management to be a “cross-government” function. However, there should be more emphasis on a central role for economic ministries.

The green paper introduces the possibility that SA should actively recruit skills in a global market. Previous official attitudes to skilled immigration seemed to assume complacently that it would be enough to permit selected categories of people to enter. It is disappointing that no substantial practical proposals are attached to this welcome change of attitude.

There are some positive specific proposals for acquiring skills. A long-term family-oriented visa will allow other members of a skilled immigrant’s family to work or study without having to apply for separate visas. Permits and visas are proposed to retain the skills of international students graduating from South African universities. Given that there are more than 20,000 international postgraduate students in SA and nearly 36,000 at undergraduate level, this is potentially a rich source of skilled recruits. The Centre for Development and Enterprise strongly supports the green paper’s uptake of this suggestion.

We are, however, concerned about confusions and omissions in the document. The first is to propose desirable change and then promptly strangle it with a list of bureaucratic requirements. The proposal for a points system for skilled immigrants is one example. In international practice, standard criteria for earning points are “qualifications, work experience, age, amount of money to invest in the country, type of business to invest in”. So far, so good.

However, the green paper introduces factors applicable to SA’s “special requirements”, including: “Ability and willingness to transfer skills; working in regions/sectors of high skill needs; SA’s labour market and skills development strategies; and BEE requirements,” Such “special requirements” will bring skills recruitment initiatives immediately to a grinding halt. Defining them, aligning them with existing legislation and dealing with the demands of special interest groups in shaping them, will occupy an army of bureaucrats. This is not good enough for a country that is greatly short of skills. Instead, we need a bolder, stronger approach that recognises our urgent need to recruit skilled people across the board, as quickly, simply and in as large numbers as possible.

Another problem arises when the document hints at changing attitudes — for instance, to recruit skills rather than merely permitting them to enter — and then offers tepid proposals or no proposals at all.

Certain key omissions add to the green paper’s shortcomings: it fails to acknowledge the potential for skilled immigration to tackle skill shortages in the public service. We need determined leadership to communicate a wider understanding of what, for example, Zimbabwean and Indian doctors, nurses and teachers could do to improve health and education outcomes for South Africans.

There is only token acknowledgment of the importance of immigrant entrepreneurial skills for boosting growth. Globally, there are incentive schemes for entrepreneurs (from developing and developed countries) from which South African policy makers could learn.

The central point is the need to grow the economy and not simply service existing needs. Instead of worrying, as in the past, about whether we might end up with too many engineers, we need aggressively to recruit skilled people to increase the size of the economy drastically, remembering that skilled and entrepreneurial people, whether immigrant or local, create jobs for South Africans, skilled and unskilled.

This is vital for economic development, and must be based on a far better understanding of domestic and global labour markets.

The more skills we have the bigger and more dynamic our economy will be. SA needs to welcome anyone with skills who wishes to migrate to this country, with a minimum of conditions. This should include anyone with formal tertiary qualifications from a recognised institution, as well as people with demonstrated entrepreneurial abilities. Moreover, our need for entrepreneurs is not confined to large investors; we should also welcome smaller entrepreneurs who want to start new businesses in this country and have the drive and expertise to do so.

Before any of this can happen, however, there has to be a commitment of political attention and will at the highest level to face up to the politics of skilled immigration and to understand why there is resistance to it in the ANC, the government and elsewhere. This resistance needs to be acknowledged, understood and targeted for committed, patient persuasion. Factual evidence alone will not be enough: arguments that appeal to the resisters’ own interests are also needed. Without this approach all the declarations of the need for an increase in skilled immigration in the green paper will go the way of similar promises of the past 17 years.

Foreign skills can make a substantial contribution to getting economic growth going again. For this to happen, skilled immigration must be placed at the centre of the new migration-management regime; and the confusions, timidity and ambiguities inherent in the draft green paper must be resolved.

  • Ann Bernstein is head of the Centre for Development and Enterprise and Sandy Johnson is a consultant of CDE