Alan Hammond
Alan Hammond

Hammering out the finer details of an enlarged cabinet

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe has confirmed that the ruling party is discussing moving the skills directorate from the labour department to the newly formed department of higher education and training.

Speculation about moving the skills development initiatives that are run by the department of labour to the education department has been simmering for many years.

The establishment of a new government under President Jacob Zuma has ushered in a new era with an enlarged Cabinet and a number of additional departments. These include the new portfolio of higher education and training which is headed up by newly appointed Minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

The responsibility for school education has fallen to the new department of basic education.

While the headline announcements about Cabinet appointments were made on Sunday May 10 by President Zuma, finer details about the government changes have not been made available.

Will FET Colleges fall under higher or basic education? Will Setas and other skills development structures currently in the department of labour move to the new higher education and training department.

With the naming of the ministers, the new government has not used the conventions that are currently in place in South African education; general, further and higher education.

It would seem likely that all general education would be housed in the new basic education department, and include further education that happens at schools. It would seem that FET Colleges would fit best within the new higher education ministry.

And if the new higher education ministry is going to include training wouldn’t it make sense to have the skills development department that is currently housed in the department of labour moved as well? Surely we couldn’t have two ministries responsible for training? That would make things even more uncoordinated than they have been to date!

I would have thought that all these finer details would have been sorted out before the announcements were made. President Zuma held his first meeting with his Cabinet on Tuesday morning, presumably to inform them all of his plans.

But on the same day Mantashe addressed union members in Gauteng, calling on them to, “engage in a serious debate on whether or not the skills directorate in the department of labour should be moved to the department of higher and further education”.

How long will it take to “engage in a serious debate?” Can the country wait while these discussions are being held?

The skills world is waiting with baited breath for the announcement of the board of the QCTO (Quality Council for Trades and Occupations). Can these be announced by the labour minister while this serious debate is going ahead?

Mantashe will have a good grasp of the issues from his time as head of the Jipsa working committee. There he was successful in “banging heads together” and getting representatives from the old departments of education and labour working in the same direction. This broke the prolonged impasse about the National Qualifications Framework and lead to the joint ministerial statement. This in turn led to the Skills Development Amendment Act and the National Qualifications Act.

Of course that opens up another can of worms. During hearings for these Acts last year (when they were still Bills) it was noted that the legislation named the minister of labour and the minister of education as being responsible for various functions. It was suggested then that this be changed to read, “the minister responsible for…”.

This advice wasn’t taken and the National Qualifications Framework Act 2008 is full of references to the minister of education, a post which doesn’t exist any more. The Skills Development Act of 1998 places the responsibility for skills development with the department and minister of labour.

It looks like some amendments to these Acts will be necessary quite soon.

Considering the key role that Blade Nzimande has played as a Zuma supporter, and his skills as a politician and activist, it seems likely that the result of the “serious debate” that Mantashe is calling for has already been decided.

“We need a person who understands the concept of the skills revolution: that the skills revolution is critical for the success of this country,” Mantashe told the Numsa delegates. “Therefore, you need a revolutionary to do that revolution.” That ringing endorsement from the ANC secretary-general carries a lot of weight.

A new department taking responsibility for higher education, FET Colleges and workplace training might bring the alignment that the country needs in our skills efforts. However, there will be challenges in bringing the three groups together. Universities are independent of government, which can only propose and encourage actions that they would like to see in the sector. FET Colleges are currently run at provincial level and Setas are all independent legal entities with their own boards.

Aligning the interests and actions of those role players is essential for South Africa’s success, but won’t be an easy task. But then it seems like we are going to have a committed revolutionary on the case!