Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 30 September 2013

The Minister is chasing away jobs!

Naledi Pandor, Minister of Home Affairs, is putting the brakes on applications for work permits from European Union companies if they don’t have plans for transferring skills to locals. Bad decision.

In her address to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce and Industry she said despite the “serious shortage of skills” and with companies being forced to recruit outside the country’s borders, she is not in favour of waiving work permit restrictions if the company does not have a plan to transfer skills to local people.

“I have found some of the waiver applications troubling,” she said. “It would lead to a situation that suggests South Africans will never meet the requirements to do these ‘specialist’ jobs.”

The good lady and her ministry have failed to understand that the key benefit of bringing in skilled people is not just that they might be able to transfer skills to locals but that each qualified person actually generates local employment. A 2009 National Foundation for American Policy study found that skilled immigrants don’t “take jobs”, they make jobs. Between five and seven jobs for people in related and support roles are created for each qualified engineer, accountant, medical-professional and other skilled immigrant.

Instead of chasing away EU applications for work permits, we should be changing our policy to welcome and encourage skilled people to come here. Need we underline that our top priority is employment? We would benefit greatly if we stopped being so possessive. Trying to hold on to what we have and investing our efforts in protecting ourselves against people who are not African is unproductive.

The truth is that local people will benefit in any case, whether there is a plan for skills transfer or not just by being exposed to greater professionalism and higher standards. Why do we believe that working in another country is good for our development and that it adds valuable experience? Not because when we send people to Europe or the US or wherever they give us a cast iron guarantee that they will transfer skills. It is simply the experience of working with skilled people that rubs off.

There is a ridiculous, no, laughable situation in the civil service where thousands of vacancies exist, but skilled local people cannot be found and so the vacancy stays. This self-defeating insistence on local empowerment undermines the whole country. It could be reversed easily if the R33 billion which was paid to ‘consultants’ between 2008 and 2011 was employed to an ‘opened up’ civil service that worked to attract not only local mainly black people, but encouraged top international professionals to come and settle here. It would be a good time to consider this now with so much unemployment in the UK and Europe.

We are constantly talking about doing business with the wider world. We have a dynamic import and export business model working for us. The trade is with commodities and products. But when it comes to people and skills, we pull up the drawbridge and try to secure the fortress. We are already exporting skills at a damaging rate. Ex-pat South Africans are doing well in the UK, Australia, The USA, Canada, and increasingly in the European Community. South African doctors and dentists are a cliché in Canada, the US and the UK. So why would we be unwilling to keep the balance and not encourage their skilled people to come here? Was there a different climate when the ANC was repaying some political debt and importing doctors from Cuba?

Most countries have restrictions on immigration and the granting of work permits, but they also have a welcome sign up for skills that are in short supply in the country. This is very sensible. We, on the other hand, with our porous borders, have large colonies of ex-pat Africans, coming here to look for a better life and to take a job if they can. But people like the EU applicants for work permits who can add skills to their local companies and create employment are shooed away.

We have a crisis in our whole education sector. We should be inviting experienced teachers to come and live and work here on contract, tax free if it will entice them, to lift our standards and get the show on the road. Trying to educate a new generation by giving them poorly qualified and wholly inadequate teachers will only entrench criminally poor standards of education. The same could be said for nursing and the police and a raft of other gaps that we are not managing to mobilise.

If we keep going with the “Africa for the Africans” theme, transition will take many more years. Our growing population is not patient enough for this.

The fear of somehow being ‘re-colonised’ by people from Europe, or only allowing them to work here on anything other than a conditional basis, is restraining the natural economic development of the country.

We also talk a lot about entrepreneurship and the need for entrepreneurs to establish businesses and in due course create employment. But entrepreneurs do not come into being by spontaneous combustion. Local wannabes need role models and successful start-ups to show them how it can be done. So why are we not making South Africa an international haven for start-up companies by, once again, encouraging them with tax breaks and every kind of assistance, instead of pushing them away?

Very good research is showing that entrepreneurs who build worthwhile businesses almost always start doing it when they are in their twenties. Mark Shuttleworth, Herman Mashaba, Ronnie Apteker, Sol Kerzner, Raymond Ackerman, Brian Joffe, Adrian Gore, Donny Gordon and Elon Musk all started when they were young, and came from backgrounds where they had some qualification and exposure to business. Young Africans who grow up in difficult, often rural circumstances have little in the way of business role models and have too many obstacles. At most the more enterprising ones could hope for self-employment. But building a start-up culture here with encouragement from people who do have the skills and business understanding, will give us a much better opportunity to set up a real entrepreneurial culture.

Despite outrage and loud defence by Mac Maharaj, our president is now said to be “anti-intellectual” by his critics because they say “he doesn’t read”. If it is true, it would be a pity and it would prevent him from understanding modern governance and leadership. A much more prevalent and damaging anti-attitude is the anti-Europeanism espoused by so many Africans. Leaders like Robert Mugabe never miss an opportunity to do some European and British-colonial-bashing. It is perhaps surprising that the articulate and usually perceptive Ms Pandor should be doing some of the same. DM


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