Foreign skills needed to improve our economy
Last July my university advertised a tenure-track position in the Humanities. We recruited widely and, in line with our goal of positioning Stellenbosch as an internationally-reputable university, appointed a US citizen with a PhD from Oxford. Our chosen candidate held a teaching job at another South African university before, but was eager for better job security and the prospect of educating the next generation of South African political leaders.
And then the process of applying for a visa started. It has been more than six months since her appointment. Although she was due to start in September, she has had to return to the US, where as I write in late-January, she is still waiting for feedback from the Department of Home Affairs.
She is not alone. Across South Africa, universities and corporations are lamenting the slow speed at which visa applications are processed. Since the amended Immigration Act was passed on May 22 2014, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain a work visa, even for foreign spouses of South African citizens. Part of the reason is that the new process requires communication between the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Labour, with the latter needed to verify whether the skills are indeed ‘scarce’.
This is all the more saddening in a country so desperately in need of all kinds of skills. Those in favour of tougher laws against skilled immigration fail to recognise the immense shortfall in skilled workers across all sectors of the South African economy. The rapid growth of the South African economy since 1994 has created a huge demand for skilled workers, with institutions of higher learning unable to keep up with demand.
This is clear from a look at unemployment rates. Stellenbosch economist Hendrik van Broekhuizen calculates that the unemployment rate for South Africans with at least a bachelor’s degree is a low 5.9%. Black graduate unemployment is slightly higher at 8.6% because black students are more likely to enrol for courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and attend formerly disadvantaged universities, where the quality of degrees are perceived to be lower. But even an 8.6% unemployment rate is vastly superior to the aggregate broad unemployment rate of 41% for black South Africans (and lower, incidentally, than the graduate unemployment rate in the European Union too). This clearly suggests that there is a much greater demand for skilled jobs in South Africa – and why the #FeesMusFall-movement was so passionate in their pleas for greater access to higher education.
Yet despite employers’ need for skilled workers, the South African government seems eager to do everything in its power to isolate South Africa from the international labour market. According to Gary Eisenberg of law firm Eisenberg de Saude, more than half of all immigration applications have been refused since the new law was enacted. He estimates that foreigners can wait anything between five and 12 months for a decision, and then a similar period for appeals. Those awaiting applications or appeals after their visas have expired can be declared ‘undesireable’, and prohibited from returning for five years.
If there is a country that should understand how isolation from the global talent pool is bad for growth, it is South Africa. Apartheid and its discriminatory education policies meant that only a sliver of the population was acquiring the skills necessary to expand the manufacturing and services sector, and grow the economy. After democracy, the need for skills became acute as firms (and universities) had to compete not only for export markets in a rapidly-globalised world, but for a skilled elite that was increasingly mobile. Despite the fact that universities have trained large numbers of black graduates (there are now more black graduates in the labour market than white), the inequalities in the demand for skilled and unskilled workers have largely remained, as the unemployment figures suggest.
That is why the government’s attitude to immigrants is so baffling. Allowing skilled immigrants to work in South Africa – and making their application process as easy as possible – is what economists like to call low-hanging fruit: one of the easiest ways to significantly improve the prospects of the South African economy. Of course immigrants should not simply substitute for training South Africans too. But denying skilled immigrants the opportunity to work is actually hurting the ability of the next generation of South Africans to acquire the skills necessary to compete in the global economy.
That is exactly the reason why we appointed an Oxford-educated lecturer. The best university departments are those with a diverse faculty who are able to offer their students access to minds trained in the best universities in the world. Such professionals often bring an international network through which different avenues for scholarships and new outside sources of funding can be made available to South African students. They are the ones to push their South African colleagues to the boundaries of science, and help them develop new theories, invent and innovate. And they are the ones who will train a new generation of South Africans who can not only participate but prosper in the economy of the future.
*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 21 January 2016 edition of Finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.