South Africa may be considered a land of opportunity by fellow Africans, but a lack of clear immigration rules for skilled migrants hinders the country from attracting the best minds and talent from the continent to solve critical skills gaps.
This is according to a report released last week by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). It also found that the focus on transformation has led to fewer skilled foreigners being hired in South Africa over the past eight years, and suggested that a better balance must be found between empowering locals and the need for critical skills.
South Africa’s job opportunities, established education system and modern technology infrastructure attract skilled immigrants to the country, the report noted.
It found that South Africa is attractive for highly skilled job seekers with expertise in critical sectors such as the sciences, information communication technology and academia. But when compared with neighbouring countries such as Botswana, South Africa does not have a clearly defined recruitment programme and policy to import the talent it needs in these areas, the HSRC report said.
After it gained independence, Botswana recognised that it had a skills shortage in areas such as teaching and nursing, and began poaching skilled migrants from the rest of Africa. Its immigration policy clearly states that skilled professionals are only hired if there is no Motswana who can do the job.
In the case of South Africa, new immigration regulations amended in 2014 replaced the exceptional skills permit with a critical skills permit, which is only granted to applicants who meet the requirements of the critical skills list published by the department of home affairs. This list includes sectors such as agriculture, engineering, architecture, business and health.
South Africa’s skills shortage has been a concern since 1994, said the report, adding that it needs a “proactive rather than a reactive policy to address the critical skills gap”.
Canada, Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand were cited by participants in the study as destinations with favourable policies towards immigrants.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s hostile stance on immigration, respondents chose the US for what they perceived as its appreciation of migrants, as well as its job opportunities. Tanzania and Zambia were believed to be open to foreign cultures, making it easy for migrants to integrate, and to have low levels of social unrest.
New Zealand has an established recruitment programme in place, as well as an easily accessible online system that enables applicants to assess the critical skills the country needs, the study showed.
It also has a diversified critical skills list categorised into short-, medium- and long-term needs, a feature that is absent in South Africa. In addition it uses its embassies around the world to profile, target, attract and recruit the skilled workers it needs.
The HSRC report says that South Africa can learn from New Zealand’s efficient and speedy visa application process and how it provides incentives to encourage students to choose to work and study in New Zealand. Migrants in New Zealand contribute $3.3‑billion a year to the fiscus.
Another difficulty for South Africa is the disjuncture between the current push for transformation and the drive for critical skills.
The HSRC recommended that “a balance needs to be found between the two policies, both of which are needed for economic growth and development”.
Other factors such as crime, social unrest, barriers to upward professional mobility and low social cohesion are also cited as reasons why South Africa may become less attractive to skilled migrants who will instead opt for other destinations.
Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the M&G