Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

Immigration: Is South Africa keeping out those it needs?

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.

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    • Alois

      It’s an eye opener indeed to read industrial South Africa’s public education system is in such straits. One would have thought the Mandela years would’ve prevented such a train wreck. Why is a robust system of education not part of his legacy? It’s a shock that it isn’t.

    • Eugene

      Considering that we have produced an entire generation of illiterate and quite thoroughly unemployable young people. we’ll soon desperately need the skills of immigrants if we want to keep civilization running, whether we like it or not.

      The immigrants are not “stealing jobs.” Whether they work as doctors or gardeners, they are doing jobs South Africans can’t or won’t do, and they are the only people left in the country with any kind of work ethic.

      Open the borders, I say: Mr Zuma, tear down that wall!

    • Gabila

      This is the most positive perspective I have seen on this issue and as a foreign national have studied and lived in South Africa I lament the fact that our politicians are not vehicling this message loud enough to stem the tide of xenophobia, after my masters degree I was lecturing at a former technikon, most of my colleagues were white and we often fought over the depth to which we should go to teach our students and equip them for life, they often argued these students are too weak, English is not their first language, so let 98percent of all their assessment be multiple choice and I will retort, who will teach them to write essays, be able to make presentations and all the practical skills that they need out of varsity…as an African I found myself more disposed to transfer and equip the younger generation than my colleagues did, as Africans we have an interest in the success of South Africa and are prepared to share all we know with your young generation so that together we take the fight for Africa’s development to another level, we have a common cause, we are locked into a common destiny, we are your friends not your enemies, we stood with you against apartheid and we can stem the skills challenge together, change your attitudes and make us feel welcome in your country, we are here to give not to take.

    • http://none Tebogo Mahloko

      “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”

      I think that home was meant to be the “continent” and not south africa alone, I have to sound like a politician but you have cornered me into sounding like one. Why did it not imply Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the rest of the African continent?
      1. you are not South African and as such your article is prejudiced from the start.
      2. I agree we need help in the fields where there is a lack of skill within the country, however it does not necessarily have to come from foreigners, maybe the invitation to “bring one’s skills to SA was for South Africans abroad?(there are more Zimbabweans and South Africans in UK than anywhere in the world, u should know)
      3. Much as your”bringing skills to SA”, we do not need a quick fix to any of our problems, quick fixes are meant to do just that, being “quick fixes”. We need long term, real and sustainable solutions to our problems and quick fixes are not that.

      Yes I wish that we had the same education as you guys have, maybe we wouldnt be in the situation that we are in.

    • http://www.vibrantmedia.co.za Mike Jones

      Great article. It probably won’t be read by anyone within the ANC, but it should. South Africa has the opportunity to tap into an army of qualified people from other African states as well as other regions and, as the USA proved a century ago, this will give our economy the boost that we so desperately need.

      The old SA had an economic boom in the late 50s, 60s and into the 70s, because we had seen massive immigration of skilled people from war-ravaged Europe. Only the lunacy of apartheid could stop us from becoming a very rich country.

    • Dave Lowe

      To me, the problem we have is that the ANC/Government (can’t really tell the difference between the 2) – have a bad case of “not invented here”.

      In other words for instance, if the Health Minister has an idea to bring in Cuban doctors to deliver the services to the many poor people that the Government is supposed to care about… that’s OK.

      However, if someone else – especially a businessman or businesswoman tries to do the same thing – for the same noble reasons, they get blocked at every turn.This shows that apart from being lazy and incompetent, many/most government employees – both “management” and “workers” just refuse to get the big picture.

      Good article.

    • Nimue

      South Africa has thousands of competent former civil servants, small business owners, middle management professionals, administrators of all kinds who have been made redundant since 1995. They comprise an unused national resource of skilled workers who DO know how to make things work. They have a work ethic based on self-discipline – which starts with showing up on time, ready and willing to work. They have a respect for deadlines, the ability to co-ordinate efforts within a group, and – most importantly – a desire to produce a real, measurable result. Where are they? Trying to find – or create – jobs for themselves in an environment that is hostile to their very presence. They are the ones who stayed, the ones who held out hope that South Africa might actually live up to its democratic promise. They were wrong but they’re still here and still have “value to add” to this country. Only a fool ignores such a resource.

    • Afro-Canuck


      And sadly, the dire skill shortage is compounded by droves of highly skilled SA Nationals emigrating to greener pastures where their talents are better valued and remunerated.

      You can’t swing a stuk droe wors in any town/city in Western Canada without hitting a Saffer engineer/doctor/ academician/ other useful professional.

    • http://www.helderwater.co.za Thijs

      As an aspiring immigrant of 18 years I have acquired some insight into the workings of the SA Immigration Machinery (and the people operating it). Although it is Public knowledge that this Department is rated as one of the most dysfunctional entities in Government, the root-causes of the problem – which in my view come down to fear, ignorance and arrogance (FIA in short) – have yet to be acknowledged and addressed. Present Minister, Pandor, like her predecessors, perpetuates this destructive ‘leadership-style’ by ignoring and defying a damming Report by the Public Protector, Adv Thuli Madonsela, and by going against the remedial action that was suggested to restore the rule of law.
      Suffering from an affliction like FIA, the Minister could not do anything else but to oppose the review application that the judge of the High Court ordered her to consider and adjudicate. Big Gun Advocates will be employed – at the tax-payers expense – to defend what is without defense (something along the lines of “gravity does not exist”). But what the heck, it is only a game! Win or lose does not make a difference. No accountability, no consequence!
      Not until the day that someone with ‘balls’, common sense and organisational/leadership skills cleans house will there be any meaningful change within this Department.

    • ak

      A very simplistic view on our problems
      1:If you come back home with some skill nobody is interested in your skill as short sighted people see you as a threat.
      2:currently there area areas where African foreign nationals has displaced local trained well qualified nationals as once in the country foreign nationals recruit and maintain jobs for themselves
      3:What good is it to steal teachers from Zimbabwe while zim is lacking teachers.

      this is a very simplistic view by those who have deserted their fellow Africans to running away from their African dictators.

      also comment on south African Nationals who go out looting the raw materials from African countries.Why not help African brothers to get rid of dictators and let their countries prosper.

      This is a very simplistic view. What fails us to produce a good educational system.

      No Madam, you need to go out into the informal settlements then you will see that Africa is exporting the uneducated people who are competing for garden jobs with us.

      madam, kindly go to the medical schools and see that the foriegn registrars are more than our local boys and girls who cannot get space.

      to discuss this we need very very big eyes

    • Xolani

      Great piece!

    • http://www.goldenladder.com.cn francois williams

      Invite Africans in, keep westerners and Chinese OUT!!!

    • Mgeve

      Your article makes me concur with ak above Kagure. I think you should avoid talking-down to the host, and have some respect. It might seem to you that there is no skill here amongst the Africans of this country. Well, what you are finding now in your sojourn in our land is what we built and were used as Slave labor under Apartheid. What you see as under-par education, is in fact a perverse and distorted version of Bantu Education, and in this case of/for our children today, has been wrecked by the advisement of American PRs and the Dumbing Down technique that has been liberally spread into our education system. Strange to say, but I am a product of Bantu Education(Not proud), but will not sit idly by whilst you get the best of this land, and now are telling us that we are in need of you. I concur with ak above, because it is disheartening to see some Africans from north of Mzantsi find it in themselves to come into our land and tell us that we need ya’ll. This is the arrogance and mien that leaves one incensed. With all the education you have acquired here in our country, you still don’t know us very well, and yet, you cast aspersions about us. Well, there are some of us you have not met who are the sons of the soil of this great country that gave you edumacation. But do not look down upon us, you still will have to meet with us, and it be interesting to talk to you about my country. Some of us are no on the Gravy drops, and care less.. Your country? How is it there?