By Steven Friedman, Business Day, 14 January 2002
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Tempting to say good riddance', but solution for SA lies in developing its skills base
SOUTH Africans, it seems, are a great deal better at talking about emigration than at doing anything to deal with its effects.
In the suburbs, December tends to be the month in which the year's émigres headed for richer pickings say farewell. So engrained is the issue that comedians build their shows around this theme and copywriters base ads on it.
It is tempting to react with a "good riddance" as spoiled suburbanites run away from the majority of their fellow citizens who they never bothered to understand. But the economic consequences of the trend are serious.
Few of our challenges are as important as developing our skills base. Since we already lack enough skilled people to meet our needs, we can hardly ignore the danger of bleeding the skills we do have.
And, while many who go are whites who cannot bear the thought of majority rule, not all are. Companies in the north are recruiting skilled people, black and white, aggressively, and there are already claims that the number of black emigrants is growing.
So what can we do? It is tempting to suggest all sorts of measures at home to make staying more attractive to those who are tempted to go. But many will go, for whatever reason, whatever we do. Population movements are a result of a host of individual decisions which governments have little ability to influence. And most of the actions that would change them take years to have any effect; we need to do something about the problem now.
But there are two immediate strategies we can implement. One has growing support among business people and opinion formers, but is frustrated by political obstacles. The other will prompt a howl of outrage but ought to be floated anyway.
The first is to scrap, or relax dramatically, immigration controls. While many middle-class South Africans head elsewhere, many skilled people are eager to work here if only we would let them. Yet our law is still based on the myth that the countries which lure our talent can afford to admit immigrants because they are rich. In reality, one of the reasons they are rich is that they let in immigrants: their policy makers know that attracting skills from elsewhere is a net gain for their economies.
Not long ago it was difficult to find anyone here, except some researchers and activists, who were willing to make the case for letting in immigrants. Now the idea that we will not grow unless we let in skilled people has begun to take root.
But there is some way to go. Firstly, a proposed law seeks to make it easier for skilled people to work here but is hedged with absurd qualifications based on the myth that every job given to a foreigner is one taken from a local. In reality, we will not create more jobs for locals unless we let in foreigners who can add to our skills base and so enhance growth. Secondly, even this law has been obstructed by bickering within the home affairs department and between it and the parliamentary portfolio committee.
So one key to dealing with our skills problem is the quick passage of a law scrapping all restrictions that prevent skilled foreigners working here.
But that might not be enough. Mainstream thinking on immigration might be realising slowly that skilled foreigners are an asset. But the understanding of who is skilled is still sadly lacking: it is assumed that an immigrant with a fancy degree is an asset while all others invariably from neighbouring countries are disease-ridden criminals who use our social services for free.
Research contradicts this. There is no evidence that foreigners are any more prone to crime or illness than locals, or that they use services without paying. Many have skills which we need, even if they did not gain them at university, and many are strengthening our economy by opening their own businesses.
What would happen if we let anyone in who wanted to live here? Probably not much. There is no evidence that having immigrants here does us any harm. And, despite all the bluster, immigration control is probably so ineffective at this level (officials can stop graduates working for formal companies they cannot stop other folks slipping across borders) that just about everyone who wants to come might already be here.
But, since it is politically impossible to scrap all immigration controls, another key to attracting the skills we need is to ensure that the rules are far more open to allowing in skilled and energetic people from neighbouring countries even if they do not have degrees and plan to work for themselves.
What about the second measure? Many of those who leave were educated at publicly subsidised schools and universities. If they work here for a time, we might recover the costs of educating them. But can we, or should we attempt to, do something about cases in which young people gain qualifications at our expense and then leave before we have received anything in return?
The only way that is consistent with democratic principles is some version of internship making it a requirement for professional degrees that students must, after they have finished their studies, spend a stipulated time working here before they receive their degrees.
And for people who do not want to work in public service, the period could be spent in a private company an obvious example being the articles that attorneys have to serve before they can receive their final qualifications.
Ideally, the object would be to make the internship long enough to ensure that the public recover our share of the money spent on the graduate's education. In practice, it would be impossible to fine-tune the scheme that well. But there does seem to be good reason to look at extended practical working periods for all professions between the end of academic learning and qualification so that we receive at least some return on those who we have paid to educate.
But, while this would be of use to the economy, it is not the long-term solution. That lies in letting in those who want to come and in getting our education and training systems right so that we have plenty of graduates over after those who want to go have left.