In his state of the nation speech at the beginning of this year, president Thabo Mbeki committed the government to ‘improving competitiveness by lowering input costs throughout the economy’.

He also said: ‘Immigration laws and procedures will be reviewed urgently to enable us to attract skills into our country.’ How well does the Immigration Bill meet the requirements specified by the president?

The bill reflects an intention to address the skills needs of the country, and in this respect is an advance on existing legislation. However, there are harsh and prescriptive clauses which could have the effect of contradicting the sound general principles.

This means the bill cannot be guaranteed to reduce skills bottlenecks, and some provisions will actually raise operating costs substantially in areas of operations affected by the skills shortage and foreign contract labour.

CDE is convinced that the legislation will not achieve the twin purposes outlined in the president’s speech.

 

Qualifying terms

The bill is littered with qualifying terms, all of which usurp the principle of market demand and replace it with an elaborate system of categories.

The objectives of the new bill are to ensure ‘needed skills’ are acquired by the economy. A critical issue is who decides what foreigners are ‘needed’, and on what basis the discretion is exercised.

We challenge the assumption that ‘needed skills’ can be categorised, calculated, predicted, or anticipated. The only proper test of ‘needed skills’ are the market’s demands and requirements.

What this bill does is to empower officials to decide what is best for the economy. One is expected to believe that the officials have the best of intentions, and that their regulations and prescriptions will honour the commitments of the president.

Unless the bill itself specifies very clearly what the outcomes of its provisions should be, it should not be supported. This bill does not do that, and for this reason falls woefully short of what South Africa desperately needs. South Africa is not a developed country like Switzerland, Singapore, or Japan. Our economic growth is much more constrained by skills shortages than theirs; and instead of hordes of qualified people trying to get in, too many of our skilled people want to get out.

This is yet another ambiguous response to South Africa’s desperate need for foreign skills. The bill is written as though the country is not facing a deepening skills crisis.

The bill in its current form should not be supported. What is required is a rapid review and redrafting process preferably influenced by the ministries committed to economic growth.

It is vital that the bill itself incorporates clear guidelines that will allow skilled people in, rather than keep them out.

  • Article by Ann Bernstein and Lawrence Schlemmer.