New crisis as Eskom mess chases SA skills away
The huge skills gap can only be plugged by foreigners. That means overhauling our appalling immigration regime
As Eskom announced stage 4 (four!) load shedding on Monday I could have sworn I heard a murmur of satisfaction buzz around the neat little middle-class Johannesburg suburb I live in.
There are about 1,100 houses in the suburb, about 5,000 people in all. I have lived in it for more than a decade. I have never seen more homes for sale. People are leaving the suburb and a good proportion of those are leaving the country forever.
They’ve had enough of crime, municipal and state incompetence and corruption. Some are doctors. Doctors are at the sharp end of the wreckage of both apartheid and the lackadaisical and twisted efforts by the ANC to fix it. They see people in our new country die every day – shot in the chest, acid in the face, diabetic to the point of gangrene. Women and children take the brunt. Their places of work are often so filthy that they fear for their own families when they come home.
That murmur of satisfaction I heard on Monday was these people, the emigrants of tomorrow and in March, telling themselves they’re right. They want their kids to grow up safe. They want to be safe too. And they’re the right age to move – young kids, parents dead or going. So, in their 40s.
But it’s a complex thing, this emigration. Obviously, most of the homes on sale in my suburb are owned by white South Africans. Increasingly, the buyers (when they come, for they are few on the ground) are not white. And when the leavers get to their target countries some will fare better than others.
Life is expensive and hard in the north and having spent 20 years abroad (and at one stage given up all hope of ever being able to come home) I can promise the parents they will be reminded every day that they are South African. Their children will quickly forget it.
It’s wrong to pass judgment on people who leave, though. It’s their right. I hope they’re happy wherever they end up, and that they try to be good ambassadors for those of us who choose to stay or have no choice. There will soon be about one million people alive in the world who were born in SA but don’t live here.
That’s a lot, and it matters because a great deal of them have skills we badly need. Our economic crisis may look like there’s no electricity but it’s our inability to make electricity that is the real problem. We don’t have the skills to keep power stations running, or to make parts that fix them. If we did there’d be no load-shedding.
Yes, I know about corruption at Eskom and the price of coal and all the mismanagement. But our skills shortage is now so severe you can actually measure it. There are things we just don’t, or can’t, make any more. Harvard University’s Centre for International Development has created what it calls an atlas of economic complexity. Basically, it suggests the more things you can make, the more complex the array of products your economy produces, the better future you have.
SA has fallen down this complexity ladder like a stone since the ANC started making industrial policy in 1994. Then we ranked 47th in the world, ahead of Thailand and China. In 2016 we ranked 66th, just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. Our economy, once among the top 50 smartest, has become a bit of a simpleton.
Everyone at the top levels of the government knows skills are a problem. President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned the issue in his State of the Nation address last week. Finance minister Tito Mboweni may mention it in his budget next week. But what to do about it?
The only reasonable answer is that we should do something to attract skills to replace the ones that are leaving. But we won’t. We won’t because the people who have the skills we need are not black and we stupidly think we can grow them at home. But this is grotesquely shortsighted, an enormous disservice to the ranks of the unemployed. Once again, Harvard has the argument.
It is this. Before economies become complex they often rely on just one thing. SA had gold. Ghana had cocoa. Thailand and China had rice. In 1963 the economies of Ghana and Thailand were the same size by GDP. But the Thais understood, or were taught, what the ANC has yet to appreciate. You cannot transfer skills via books and videos.
You have to have someone physically show you how to do a new thing, be it laying a brick or shaping an engine block. The only way to get people in here to teach us how to do new things is to replace the skills we’ve already lost and are again in the process of losing. That means a serious reform of our appalling immigration regime, from tourism to residency and citizenship.
A few hundred foreigners became SA citizens in 2018. We need tens of thousands of them. Thailand is now a huge manufacturing economy. Its exports are three times greater than ours. They got there by throwing open their doors to foreign investors and asking little more than that they hire local labour. The rest is history. The Thais can make anything. Us? Less and less.
• Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and the Financial Mail.