Study calls for migration overhaul - govt says review under way

Terence Creamer, Engineering News

A fundamental shift in South Africa's migration policy is required to deal with the country's prevailing skills crisis, a newly published report argues, adding that even much-needed improvements to the domestic education and training environment will not be sufficient to deal with what is a deepening deficit.

Produced by policy research group the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), the study effectively calls for a reformulation of immigration policy away from the current focus on the controlling movement, to one that is more strongly aligned to South Africa's economic growth objectives.

In fact, the authors suggest that South Africa's economic Ministries should have a far greater influence over guiding the policy's formulation, which is currently fashioned primarily by the Departments of Home Affairs and Labour.

Executive director Ann Bernstein goes as far as to argue that government's 7% growth aspiration will not be achieved without "a rapid infusion" of foreign skills and the opening of the country's doors to "very large numbers of skilled immigrants".

Entitled ‘Skills, Growth and Borders: Managing migration in South Africa's national interest', the report argues that the skills shortage is worse than the Department of Labour's 2008 estimate of 502 000 people and that the current quota-list permitting system was flawed, costly, cumbersome and too narrowly framed.

The quota system, which will be changed should proposed amendments to the Immigration Act be approved, relied, Bernstein says, on bureaucrats to sift through historic data to forecast the country's future skills needs, right down to the "number of astrophysicists". In so doing, emerging skills were often neglected, owing to often incomplete consultation processes.

The report notes that the quota system - through which skilled migrants gain permission to enter the country without a job offer - is antiquated and underused. In 2008, some 36 000 permits were made available, but only 1 133 were taken up, notwithstanding the official skills deficit of around half-a-million people.

"In a country desperate for skilled people, spending effort on predicting the precise skills needs of a dynamic market economy is a complete waste of time and money," Bernstein argues.

Home Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa told Engineering News Online that, while he could not comment on the report, which he had not yet seen, the department had already initiated a far-reaching review of the current policy.

He notes that Home Affairs Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had already signalled that the new policy will seek to separate economic migration from asylum seeking and that the consultation process has already been initiated. These consultations initially involved the Congress of South African Trade Unions and Business Unity South Africa, but further consultation is envisaged during early 2011.

Once a new policy is formulated it will be presented to Parliament for further discussion.

For its part, the CDE hopes that its study will influence what it acknowledges to be a "complex" debate, where the economic benefits of a more open system have to be balanced with social, security and crime-prevention concerns.

Nevertheless, Bernstein argues that it is crucial that South Africa departs from its current "fortress South Africa" policy and a quota-list system that is "flawed and misguided".

Bernstein argues that South Africa has to "stop playing victim in the global war for talent" and begin competing.

"We must go beyond filling existing skills gaps in large companies. We urgently need immigrants to revitalise our faltering public health, education and skills production systems, and to boost innovation and entrepreneurship," Bernstein avers.

The CDE also calls for a "pathway" to be created for unskilled "irregular" immigrants from Southern African Development Community countries to legalise their status in South Africa.

"A legal migrant population would be easier to manage than an unknown, underground one," the report argues, adding that it would also enable South Africa to tap into the entrepreneurial energy of these immigrants, many of whom would set up job-creating enterprises and begin paying tax.