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Immigration policy: Should South Africa be open or closed?

Chris is the CEO of Accelerate Cape Town, a business think tank and catalyst focussed on growing a robust, sustainable & inclusive regional economy. Chris has extensive skills & experience as a management consultant & is a qualified futurist. He has worked both locally & globally in the areas of strategic thinking, strategy development & business transformation. Prior to returning to SA to lead Accelerate Cape Town, Chris was the CKO for EY Knowledge in Asia Pacific. Chris specializes in the use of systems thinking, scenario planning and foresight development in performance improvement. He spends his time on leadership development, business relationship building & advocacy in the focus areas of Africa, innovation & entrepreneurship, connectedness & talent attraction & retention.

South Africa needs skills. Our education system is not producing the requisite skills – at least not in the volumes needed. In terms of migration policy, the ideal is an open policy which actively encourages skills acquisition across a range of levels.

In the South African context, the refrain tends to be that we need to protect and grow local jobs. The need to develop an inclusive economy cannot be disputed. However, if you are good enough, you will have a job. Job security is a myth. Skills security is the new reality.

Holding onto the ‘old’ by trying to insulate ourselves from the certainty and reality of a globalised market and ignoring the need to compete with cities and countries which do embrace that reality is not helpful – or even sensible.

Skills shortage is an international problem. According to the OECD, Britain (where the term “brain drain” originated) lost more skilled professionals than any other country in the world from 1998-2008. They left for vibrant and sunny places like Sydney, Miami and Barcelona.

We need to ensure that we get our share of this ‘human capital’ foreign direct investment (FDI). However as with capital inflows, we have not recently achieved our share of the world’s FDI. As with financial flows, people want certainty that they can buy property, that they and their investments are secure, and that they are easily able to move into and out of countries and regions without undue red tape.

Skills are mobile and should not be seen as geographically-bound. We need to see ourselves as part of the global economy and as such, compete for scarce global skills. In a post-global financial crisis world, South Africa is well-positioned to take advantage of relatively poor conditions in other parts of the world and to attract talented people to be based here and operate both locally and across the continent. We have the advantage of being a proverbial ‘soft landing’, in the same way places like Singapore and Hong Kong are for Asia.

The world has moved on from the industrial economy of the 1930s and 40s, when the emphasis was on machinery and processes, and is now firmly in the knowledge economy. The focus internationally is on innovation and creativity, and the rise of what is called “the creative class”. To be at the forefront of this economy, you need a world-class city and country that has a ready supply of intellectual capital. Companies in the knowledge economy need easy access to this talent. This means keeping engineers, research scientists, actuaries, computer specialists and writers in Cape Town and South Africa. Our visa regime clearly needs to reflect this reality.

When should government know to alter and adjust immigration policy to boost economic growth? The short, perhaps slightly trite answer is that a far closer relationship between the various spheres of government and business is needed to inform the supply and demand sides of the skills equation. Government – in this case the Department of Home Affairs – cannot hope to succeed operating in isolation. Only through active engagement can this be achieved.

As a futurist, it strikes me as entirely obvious that the business of government should be to understand the range of potential futures South Africa faces. Developing a vigorous foresight capability is essential to the successful running of any organisation, as it enables understanding of where we might be heading, what the megatrends driving us are and how we can best mobilise now for success tomorrow.

The reality of globalisation – financially and economically, but perhaps more in terms of geopolitical factors – presents us with clear and fairly stark choices: live together, embrace a common destiny and prosper, or travel an isolationist, protectionist path and face decline and failure. DM

Chris Whelan is the CEO of Accelerate Cape Town, a business think-tank and catalyst focused on growing a robust, sustainable and inclusive regional economy. This is an excerpt of his remarks at an immigration debate hosted by the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies on 31 October entitled “What type of immigration policy should South Africa adopt?” The other keynote speakers included Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele and economist Professor Brian Kantor.


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