Defend Truth


The three R’s – review, rethink and reimagine – are urgently needed to get skills development in South Africa back on track


Karl Cloete is the former Numsa Deputy General Secretary. He writes in his personal capacity. (Photo: Netwerk24)

The dream that SETAs would help usher in a new era where workers would find jobs, new opportunities and increased income through skills development has faded into a crushing failure. As the Department of Higher Education and Training, the SETAs and the National Skills Fund chase numerical targets to show that people are getting “training”, they fail to ensure quality of outcomes. It is time for a rethink.

Skills development can play an important role in improving the absorption of workers into the economy, and in supporting an industrial strategy aimed at expanding employment. Yet in the face of South Africa’s unemployment crisis of close to 50% joblessness, and a ticking time bomb of youth unemployment sitting at 75%, the 21 SETAs that are tasked with addressing skills and which annually accumulate about R17-billion between them, appear unable to make a meaningful contribution to unemployment figures or to make a dent in the skills crisis in our country.

Unfortunately, the trade union movement places skills development and training at the bottom of its list of priorities which has allowed get-rich-quick service providers and companies to take over this important space with single-skillset training rather than apprenticeship, broader artisan training and upskilling of existing workers. Unions are quick to argue the need for a “skills revolution” in theory, but in practice do little to bring the benefits of skills development to workers. The Department of Higher Education and Training, the SETAs and the National Skills Fund chase numerical targets, at the cost of quality of outcomes. This creates a market that is highly exploited by employers and skills development service providers who drive a profit-orientated agenda.

With the advent of global supply chains, neo-liberalism and the dominance of finance capital in the world economy (including its investment stake in new productive activity in South Africa), and the emergence of radically new technologies, employment and skilling prospects for workers worldwide appear dismal.

Many workers will face the loss of their jobs and young workers will struggle to enter the labour market as first-time employees. Yet no discussion has taken place within the union movement about the political and economic implications of these changes and how the skills system should respond. Now is the time for that discussion.

In June 2009, Cosatu held a national education and skills training conference that was addressed by its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who noted, amongst other things, the following issues:

o “The labour movement has not succeeded in transforming the skills training system.

o The systems for recognising prior learning (RPL) are still not generally in place.

o Most workers still do not have access to training. According to the Labour Force Survey, white men are still more likely to get training than black workers. At the same time, many employers refuse workers paid time off for training so they end up taking courses at weekends or at night.

o The planning process in most companies remains firmly in the hands of management. Cosatu has not sufficiently empowered workers and shop stewards to develop demands and fight for them.

o The SETAs are not blameless. Too often, their extensive planning requirements, even if wellintentioned, have stalled progress.

o Cosatu has not linked skills development sufficiently to employment equity while it has yet to improve its representation on SETA boards.

o There is a failure to ensure that ordinary workers have a voice in defining skills needs and programmes.”

These submissions from 2009 remain true and relevant to this day.

Although the skills dispensation, put in place in 1998, was largely the work of education and training activists who were active in the union movement in the late 1980s and 1990s, and even though the new training framework was envisaged as being highly beneficial to employed workers in the union movement, the outcomes have not produced what was envisaged.

The union movement today is minimally involved in the governance of the skills system, and unable to lead its renewal. Union representatives attend SETA board meetings but do not play a strategic role. There has been no skills revolution (as was hoped for in the Skills Act of 1998), and even when acquiring additional education and training, many unemployed youth and former workers have derived few benefits from having these additional skills and qualifications. The link between training and jobs has collapsed. Few workers have experienced the job mobility implicitly promised by the new system of education and training.

The SETA structure set up to govern this new system has proved to be hugely bureaucratic, putting more emphasis on ensuring compliance with government supply chain rules than providing a proper direction based on expert knowledge of each economic sector. Even funding for trade union education has been marketised and is subject to tender processes.

Multipartite governance of the SETA boards has proved disappointing, as they have become sites for industrial relations conflict between management and labour, rather than as a creative forum for determining the most effective skills interventions for each economic sector.

There is also some evidence that conflict has increasingly taken the form of fights over the funds located in the SETAs – in some sectors, SETAs have become ATMs or cash cows, rather than the developmental institutions they were intended to be.

There has also been a major change in the extent of solidarity for the cause of upgrading worker skills. In the late 1980s there was a powerful political and moral impetus to give to employed workers what apartheid had deprived them of throughout their working lives – access to education and training and recognition of their skills in the form of qualifications and better pay. Upskilling was also seen as an economic imperative to kickstart a sluggish economy.

In the early 1990s it was understood by all sides that South Africa required a more skilled workforce if it were to modernise its economy internally and succeed in entering export markets in a newly globalised world.

The skills system we have at present is a mess and the voice of organised labour, employed workers and unemployed former workers must be heard on the need to change the SETA landscape, particularly in the way that SETAs manage the funds raised through the skills levy that are meant to support economic growth and transformation.

The current skills development system must be transformed to promote the interests of all workers – employed and unemployed. It must transform so that its structures become responsive to the new and changing economy and labour market, and quicker to respond to scenarios such as the Covid-19 and associated lockdown conditions. As things stand, they are failing to contribute meaningfully to economic growth and development.

The skills system must tangibly contribute to the creation of decent jobs, the retention of jobs, job security, and mobility of skills within and between different sectors of the South African economy. 

It is time for a new think-tank to be established to review, rethink and reimagine the skills system in South Africa. Members should include the union movement, the SETA and NGO sectors, and academics who are engaged in supporting workers and unions in skills-related research. DM




Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted