Squandering our skills

2008-07-29 00:00

In a fiercely competitive world the top performing countries are those who are able to produce cutting-edge skilled people and keep them, if not lure them from elsewhere. Investing in human capital, which includes building an educated workforce, is one of the main reasons for the success of the East Asian Tiger economies.

The phenomenal growth of emerging economies over the past few years, and the old industrial nations’ scurrying to respond, have put a further premium on human capital. But this is also partly what the success of countries like the United States and Britain has been built on for the past century — their ability to be a magnet for skills from all over the world.

There is a huge shortage of skilled professionals around the world because countries are not able to produce enough skilled people. Industrial nations are poaching scarce-skilled workers from developing countries in order to stay competitive. Developing countries that are misruled, un-democratic or simply indifferent to local talent make it easier for their skilled professionals to be recruited from abroad. For managers, politicians and leaders in South Africa to expect a magic wand of “patriotism” to prevent skilled people from taking up overseas offers is simply foolish.

Secondly, to think that South Africa could “manage quite well, thank you”, when it loses skilled people to other countries is to misunderstand what makes some countries excel and others remain in the lower divisions. Of course, many talented people will always want to broaden their horizons, skills and experience by studying or working abroad. And many will return with more skills.

But in a world where scare skills are at a premium, a country’s most talented people must be encouraged to return. Foreign scarce-skilled people must also be actively recruited to come to South Africa in the same way that talented South Africans seek development abroad.

Last month the captain of the South African netball team, Bronwyn Bock-Jonathan, left for Australia, after being recruited to coach the AIS Canberra Darters and the Netball Act Academy. Bock-Jonathan has a DhD in sports science, having researched how sport can improve the lives of teenage girls on the impoverished Cape Flats, and has lectured sport science at Stellenbosch University. She has also captained South Africa at the netball world championships at senior and U21 level.

Bock-Jonathan has unique skills and the lack of response from local netball, sport and even political leadership to retain them sums up South Africa’s cavalier attitude towards its most talented people. Such an attitude will not only cost the economy dearly, it will also im-poverish South African society.

Early this year, the top management of the South African military warned that the rate at which soldiers, sailors, pilots and technicians were being poached from the South African National Defence Force from abroad posed a serious threat to the country’s security. In June, apparently, 10 senior South African Air Force technicians resigned in one week after being recruited by an Australian aviation agency. This after 20 aircraft engineers were re-cruited the month before. South African Airways (SAA) is in the process of voluntary retrenchment to get rid of 225 pilots, as a cost-cutting exercise to try to reach its target of making a R1,7 billion profit.

Airlines such as Emirates and Qatar are lapping up the highly trained South African pilots. But SAA’s short-sightedness is typical of South African public institutions. It would have made more sense to cut down on the excessive bonuses of SAA’s non-performing CEO Khaya Ngqula.

For developing and African countries to be competitive, competent political leadership is also a scarce skill that may be more crucial than in industrial nations. The problem of most struggling African and developing countries is not that they don’t have competent political leaders, it is that these leaders are often blocked from reaching the top because of the way the political system is structured.

Most African and developing countries cannot get out of this political leadership trap — they have the available leadership skills, but the structurally imposed re-strictions keep them out and reward the mediocre.

In South Africa the ANC is tearing itself apart over Jacob Zuma who may be a very decent person, but who is not going to give South Africa the cutting-edge political leadership that this country now so desperately needs to remain competitive. The uncertainty his ascendancy into the South African presidency will create may actually push local talent, of whatever colour, away.

It is perhaps even more scandalous that political circumstances increasingly appear to make Zuma the ANC’s shoe-in for the country’s presidency when the ANC itself abounds with skilled leaders.

• William Gumede is research fellow at the School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand. His new book The Decline of the Intellect (with Leslie Dikeni) will be out soon.

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