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Last updated: 5 April 2005

Devising a strategy to win over immigrants who can make
positive contributions

By Ann Bernstein - Cape Times

The finance minister predicts that the economy is expected to grow by 4 to 4.5% over the next three years.
But if and when we begin to achieve sustained levels of growth at or above 4%, we will unmask a crisis -
South Africa's desperate shortage of the skills that an emerging export-oriented economy requires.

The president has been forthright about the lack of capacity in the public service and the delivery problems this causes. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor consistently rates South Africa well below competitor developing countries partly because we are not encouraging risk-taking entrepreneurs to move to South Africa.

Now the president's International Investment Council has lent its weight to calls for greater freedom to import skills into the country. Although a dramatic upgrading of our educational system is the most vital strategy to combat our skills crisis, we urgently need a short-term solution.

It will be years, if not decades, before current educational reform and training initiatives bear results on scale,
and these very initiatives are constrained by a lack of skilled educators, trainers and mentors.

The immediate solution is an open door, market-driven immigration policy. We must import the skills we need to
help grow the economy.

There is a popular misconception that skilled immigrants "steal" jobs from South Africans.

The truth is that one qualified immigrant teacher of mathematics or bookkeeping can probably "create" scores of jobs without in any way reducing the chance of a similarly qualified South African becoming employed.

More importantly, every skilled professional directly or indirectly generates additional jobs. And each new skilled immigrant will create new jobs for South Africans simply by buying goods and services and paying tax.

The response of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) to the draft new immigration regulations is
broadly positive - many amendments significantly ease procedures for entry into the country. However, this does
not necessarily mean SA will have a successful immigration policy. We are concerned about two overarching factors.

Many of the key requirements for immigrants, implemented in the context of capacity and efficiency problems
in public administration, could lead to time-consuming, costly compliance procedures. A zealous application of regulations could reinforce the image of South Africa's immigration regime as slow and highly protective.

Our second concern relates to the overall policy context within which regulations will be interpreted and implemented. What is the government's attitude to migrants?

How are officials being guided with respect to the inevitable judgment calls that any immigration system will demand?

In a context of ambiguity or uncertainly concerning our approach and attitude to migration, the odds are enormous that the new act and associated regulations will be implemented restrictively.

In the process we will protect small groups of interests inside the country, and hold back our (and the region's) progress enormously.We are also worried about specific requirements in the new regulations.

Quotas: There can easily be a mismatch between how quotas define the skills we need and the actual skills required by South Africa's fast moving economy. The regulations pertaining to quota work permits substantially circumscribe the flexibility of the proposed immigration control system.

There are enormous difficulties in defining and quantifying quota categories and even greater difficulties in keeping abreast of the changing combinations of skills in newer technologies. It is impossible to predict demand for employees by levels of skill and education more than two or three years ahead - making predictive precision doubtful from the outset.

The regulations pertaining to quota work permits substantially circumscribe the flexibility of our proposed immigration control system.

Business permits: The proposed requirements will discourage potential investors. The level of capital investment is too high; the requirement to base new business in out of the way places is a strategy that has failed here and around the world; the necessity to employ five South Africans in new businesses ignores the reality that many small businesses start out as knowledge-intensive one- or two-person operations or as family enterprises and only later grow to include non-family members.

Why exclude these productive individuals from our economy and tax base? The entry requirements in respect of business permits are too high.

After 10 years of democratic rule and years of debate on migration, the time has come for a bold new approach.
The CDE believes the new immigration regime must:

  • Send a clear message to all relevant officials that immigration has positive consequences for all South Africans.
  • Reassure employers that speedy processes are available for them to recruit the skills they need.
  • Enable and encourage departments and corporations to actively recruit the large numbers of skills we need.
  • Send a message to prospective immigrants across the globe that South Africa welcomes foreigners who can make
  • a productive contribution to our economy, strengthen our project management skills and help train our young people.

The CDE is unambiguously in favour of much greater migration into South Africa. Skilled people - trained by another country's taxes - will help educate/train South Africans, and provide the doctors, computer technicians and qualified teachers that we desperately need.

We can import people to manage development projects effectively and in the process mentor those starting out in the profession; and start new businesses that pay taxes and will in time employ local people.

The benefits of a wide open policy for immigrants will provide enormous advantages to all South Africans.

  • Bernstein is executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise. This article is based on CDE's numerous publications on immigration policy and on its recent submission to government commenting on the new draft immigration regulations.
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