Election time is nearly upon us, which signals a flurry of activity to curry favour. A recent attempt was the hearings on the Immigration Amendment Bill. As a continental leader it is only befitting to want to monitor the comings and goings of people. The Immigration Amendment Bill seeks to tighten up the “porous borders”, but is South Africa keeping out those it needs? In the context of a skills shortage, the ever-present “brain drain” and a below mediocre schooling system can South Africa afford to keep out foreign nationals, especially those with skills?
At an African Union meeting, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke to the fact that there are skills outside of the African continent and as the continent develops these skills must return. But the one comment that stood out the most for me was that people need not return to their country of origin, merely return to the continent in general. Addressing the press, Dlamini-Zuma pleaded with those abroad to come back “home”.
This statement is an invitation to bring one’s skills to South Africa, but it would seem home affairs and legislators did not get the memo.
The reality is that being able to come and work in the country is akin to keeping a snowball cool in the fifth circle of hell. Basically it is damn near impossible. Ask anyone about the epic “visa grind”. Months of application meets hours of queuing meets various levels of rejection. And the cycle begins again.
It is brutal.
In between much banter and snacking the portfolio committee on home affairs attempted to tackle the skills shortage. The members of parliament have discussed how there are few skills in the country having been told by various research entities that the education system often fails to meet the needs for skills development. With primary education making small shuffles forward from failing to barely failing and parts of the tertiary education system straining under the pressure of those who need financial aid skills, development remains stunted.
The answer given to their cries of woe is “get foreign nationals to transfer skills”.
When presented with the idea of skills transfer these same MPs reject the idea that persons from outside the country should come and work.
This is unfortunate as South Africa can ill-afford to keep out these “outsiders”. A matric pass rate that is that side of 50 does not bode well for further education and in turn development of higher skills. It has often been argued by many hailing from ex-British colonies that “they may have enslaved us, made us go to war, changed all our street names and treated us worse than the dog but by George did they educate us”.
In light of the education systems that have graced the rest of the continent (and been absent here) South Africa is lucky that highly skilled people from other African countries are willing to come and work. This is an asset that is currently under-utilised.
Aside from the people who are being kept out by immigration laws there is the issue of those who are here and have skills. Out there is a man with a PhD who is a street sweeper. Yes he has taken an unskilled labourer’s job but he is not being utilised to the best of his capacity. There is also the master’s graduate who has managed to get a degree in chemical engineering but now works at the checkout till at the Pick n Pay. I recently met a man with an advanced diploma in education and a postgraduate in English who tutored the odd private school child to make ends meet. South Africa apparently has no skilled teachers. Here is the crux of the skills situation in South Africa.
A great deal of unskilled labour is still being taken up by foreign nationals but the skills they do have are kept out of by home affairs red tape and strict labour laws. And in turn, everyone loses. Labourers lose as their jobs are taken anyway. Businesses lose because now they are not filling positions with the best people. Those who are employed do no benefit from the skills transfer and overall South Africa loses.
It is understandable that there is a need to protect those within the borders — the African land of “milk and honey”. There are many who will seek to jump the borders and abuse the system. The Immigration Amendment Bill is a noble attempt to speak to these issues but there is a fine line between practical and draconian. Too little and one could face an unemployment crisis the likes of which are reserved for periods described by words such as “great” and “depression”. Too far and one could hamstring growth.
My upbringing taught me that when someone invites you to stay, make yourself useful. This is the mentality that should be adopted. The public and private sector can make it so that those from other nations come here and teach what they know, allowing for growth on both sides.
The hiring of foreign nationals is a quick-fix solution to a pending crisis. The presence of foreign nationals within the economic realm should not be seen as a burden, but an asset. The South African schooling system is creating a structure that is fast becoming unable to accomplish the grand dreams this country has for its future.
A threat to South Africa’s future is a threat to the future of the continent as a whole. Contrary to popular belief African foreign nationals do not want a hand-out. They do not seek to pillage the few resources that are believed to be within the borders of this country, they are waiting at the door to contribute to the country.