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SA gets set for big debate on immigration

3rd December 2010

By: Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor


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Migration and migration policies are emotive topics the world over. Be it economic boycotts against the state of Arizona for passing tough immigration enforcement laws, or promises by Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, that net migration numbers will be slashed. Or be it headscarfs in France, a ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, news that asylum seekers on Christmas Island have been sewing their lips together in protest over Australia’s approach to the issue, or economic estimates suggesting that Germany may require a yearly foreign-skills injection of 400 000 to keep its economy growing.

The issue has emerged as a key concern and priority for policymakers and for politicians, many of whom fight for, win, or lose seats based on their stance on matters migrant.


In South Africa, where official unemployment remains stubbornly above the 25% level and where the keloids from the 2008 xenophobic attacks remain visibly tender, the issue is just as emotive.

However, there is also a creeping recognition that the creation of a more immigrant-friendly policy could be important in dealing with a still serious skills deficit – one that is unlikely to be closed even if much-needed improvements to the domestic education and training systems are made.


In keeping with this second theme, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has published a study effectively calling for a fundamental reformulation of immigration policy away from the current focus on controlling movement to one that is more strongly aligned to South Africa’s economic growth aims.

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 tells Engineering News 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 would seek to separate economic migration from asylum seeking and that the consultation process had already been initiated. These consultations initially involved the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and Business Unity South Africa, but further consultation is envisaged during early 2011.

Without doubt, Cosatu’s input will carry a great deal of weight, not only because of its standing within the governing Alliance, but also because its members are potentially made more vulnerable by a policy of openness.

Therefore, the labour federation is likely to emphasise the need to increase the resources for internal skills development programmes over any policy of border loosening.

In its document, A Growth Path Towards Full Employment, Cosatu argues that the skills deficit can be partly remedied by increasing funding for development and training by raising the payroll levy from 1% to 4%. It also argues that the gap between formal education and workplace experience needs to be closed to enable workers to move across sectors and that skills development needs to be incor- porated into the employment equity and empowerment scorecards.

The Department of Home Affairs says that, 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”.

Immigration attorney Chris Watters agrees that a review is long overdue, noting that the last appraisal took place in 1996. At the time, it was not fully appreciated that the country would need to compete strongly against other countries for scarce skills.

“There is also currently no sense that immigration is actually a partnership between the public and the private sectors,” Watters says, adding that the current devices allowed for recruitment were “creaking”.

But Watters also suggests that there is a need for some more immediate “tweaking” and is concerned that many of the proposed changes to the Immigration Act of 2006, which have been formulated in the Immigration Amendment Bill of 2010, are more attuned to dealing with parochial departmental challenges than with the urgent need to improve South Africa’s relative competitiveness in attracting foreign skills.

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.


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