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Last week, the government issued its critical skills list. This is the basis on which we will condescend to allow the world’s brightest, most skilled and most talented people to seek a new life on our shores.
The list, delivered by the department of home affairs after two painful years of intellectual constipation, is a sad waste of time. The last thing in the world that this government wants is clever, capable people. Especially not foreigners, who might show us up.
Highly competent foreigners are not embraced. Instead, they’re perceived as an existential threat to a workforce that is steadily becoming less educated and less skilled.
Imported merit is also a political threat. Job appointments must fit into ever-tightening demographic straitjackets and career advancement is often the result of tokenism and connections within the ruling party.
The skills list is already long out of date. Remarkably, for a document produced under the ministerial oversight of Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, himself a medical doctor and former minister of health, it will permit the immigration of general practitioners but not medical specialists, of which there is a crippling shortage.
SA’s problem is not only the existing knowledge deficit, but a growing future one.
One of the buzz phrases of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Or 4IR as it snazzily abbreviates to.
Just in case, like me, you’ve been snoozing at the back of the class, the First Industrial Revolution was the harnessing steam in the mid-18th century to mechanise production. The second was using electricity in the mid-19th century for mass production; 3IR was the 20th-century move to automated production through digital technologies; and 4IR is “a fusion of technologies to blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”.
In a SA context, 4IR is the critical key to Ramaphosa’s dreams of smart cities and bullet trains. That is, if only the unions would evolve beyond 1IR and Eskom could power 2IR and the communication ministry releases the broadband necessary to sustain even 3IR.
In 2018, Ramaphosa decreed a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission. Now called the Presidential Commission on 4IR, its report was gazetted last year.
Unsurprisingly, the commission saw SA’s 4IR as best being driven by the state. Also unsurprisingly is the report’s failure to address the lack of highly skilled workers.
According to the government’s 2017 White Paper on migration, about 120 000 people with professional qualifications emigrated between 1989 and 2003, with the number growing by 9% a year. Yet home affairs grants only about 2 000 “exceptional skills” visas a year.
The developed nations have an insatiable appetite for knowledge workers. One of the sources for these is encouraging students from all around the world into their tertiary institutions, then trying to get the top ones to stay.
SA has a similar influx of bright students from elsewhere in Africa but despite its talk of a need for “a legal route for [African] economic migrants”, the reality is that it does everything it can to get rid of them the moment they graduate.
“At the end of the day,” says a higher education specialist who chose not be named, “the government is only interested in jobs for locals. It fails to understand these African graduates – many with science and technology degrees – are like most economic migrants, job makers, not job takers.”
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