The Economist in its first edition for 2010 asks the question: "What will make the news over the coming twelve months?" Its answer: "The Football World Cup to be held in South Africa in June and July will be a global showstopper and should draw a cumulative television audience of about 30 billion viewers."! That seems unbelievable, but that is what The Economist says. Add to this another 400,000 to 500,000 people who will actually gain first-hand experience by visiting South Africa and this is an awful lot of attention - and if the event goes off well - and we don't doubt it will - South Africa, the country and its people, will get enormous exposure.
Expectations are high. William Saunderson-Meyer, the acerbic and provocative columnist with Weekend Argus, says that to the South African government, the World Cup is not merely a sports tournament. "On the contrary, the ANC is counting on it to deliver jobs, economic growth, unity, peace, national glory and international esteem. This is like a gambler placing his entire depleted stake on one number for a final spin of the wheel." And Leslie Maasdorp, Vice Chairman of Absa Capital and Vice President of Business Leadership South Africa, on the eve of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos says this year - because of the World Cup - South Africa has a marvellous opportunity to get a positive message across. At the same time he reminds everybody that the country faces serious challenges - one of which is "the massive skills shortage. Plain assertions on how we are tackling this are not enough. Demonstrable examples of innovative approaches are required to persuade the sceptics that we are positioned for growth."
In support of Leslie's view, I propose that the World Cup be used specifically to generate and attract skilled and experienced people. All state-owned enterprises are in trouble - and the reason is undoubtedly a lack of experienced and qualified management. Even the ruling party acknowledges that the skills crisis affects also departments of State. Year-end school results for 2009 were completely unacceptable - largely due to failing teacher standards. The delivery of houses has fallen way behind set targets - not because of a lack of money but because of bureaucracy and because companies with the skilled personnel don't get the contracts.
The Government in important respects acknowledges that it needs to reach beyond what might be described as the skills and labour pool it has so far promoted. For example, the South African Police recently announced that it will re-enlist hundreds of experienced retired or retrenched senior officers as part of a major project to beef up policing; and the moratorium on the training of new reservists is to be lifted - so producing thousands of new part-time officers.
Another sensible and welcome development is the decision by the Department of Public Service and Administration that State entities (not just departments of State and the public enterprise corporations but also municipalities and public hospitals, etc.) who recruit skilled foreign nationals "may as an incentive pay them a deployment allowance amounting to 32% of their commencing salary notch" or their package. Richard Leven, Director-General of the Department, says that this allowance is intended "to make it easier to recruit skilled workers from abroad." Unfortunately, in terms of the Immigration Act, before such persons can be recruited from overseas, proof has to be provided that there aren't any South Africans capable of filling the position - so introducing a major bureaucratic obstacle. This provision should immediately be suspended for, say, an 18-month period; and the principle of the deployment allowances should be extended to the private sector and businesses encouraged now to start recruiting overseas on this basis. Medi-Clinic, one of the biggest hospital groups in South Africa, is already doing this. It has appointed nurses from India because there is a 60,000 staff shortage - 42,000 vacant nursing positions in the public sector and 18,000 in private hospitals and clinics.
The encouragement of immigrant skills from Europe, from the Middle East and from India will certainly not affect the country's demography or its occupational profile. And for example, they will come because we have a beautiful country, a favourable climate, and there are tremendous opportunities. In fact, if American experience is anything to go by - they will be enormously enriching. A Harvard study found that a quarter of American engineering and technology firms established between 1995 and 2005 have immigrant founders. Other researchers found that a quarter of the patent applications filed from America over this period were based on the work of foreign nationals in the US.
While we are responding to the skills shortage, let's also think local. An excellent illustration is a programme introduced by the City of Cape Town. It advertised for engineers on a non-permanent but attractive basis. (For example, flexi-time so that they can play with their grand-children, etc.) Within less than three months the City has 750 willing highly-qualified engineers on its database. This can be replicated in terms of retired or retrenched civil servants and top-quality teachers who were unwisely encouraged to take "the package" after the ANC came to power.
All this could be put together - not forgetting the South African diaspora of trained young people - in an exciting marketing package. We would be using the enormous exposure which the World Cup brings to say: "South Africa, the gateway to Africa and Africa's strongest economy, a country on the edge of BRIC status, is ready to welcome you, your family and your skills. And you will have the pleasure of knowing that your skills make a difference. They contribute to service delivery, revenue saving and the greater happiness of our society."
Dr Denis Worrall
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