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Skills Revolution in the Making in South Africa
By Farah Khan, Inter Press Service
 
  CAPE TOWN, Mar 24 (IPS) - The South African government is pioneering a ''skills revolution'' to address the fallout of apartheid education on an underskilled, badly paid workforce that threatens to keep the country underdeveloped.
 
  The skills revolution is the term Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana uses to describe a massive national plan to match workplace training with the needs of the growing economy as well as to help the workforce to play catch-up.
 
  The innovation is multi-pronged and involves the payment of a one percent levy annually from government and business payrolls to fund training by 27 sectorial education and training authorities (SETAS).
 

  These SETAS match the most important sectors in the economy and will identify the skills needed to improve the competitiveness of each industry. Workers will be trained accordingly.

 
  If the innovation is successful, it should lead to a highly trained workforce and to a more modern economy. ''This programme is remarkable in the impact it will have on our economy and in building a better life for all our people,'' says Mdladlana.
 
  While its target is the future, the skills development policy is meant to address the past. Apartheid's planners determined that blacks were ''born to be the hewers of wood and the drawers of water,'' in the words of Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of separate development. .
 
  In line with this philosophy, black children were starved of good education. The apartheid government spent between four and seven times more on white pupils than it did on black.
 
  The impact on the democratic state inaugurated in 1994 has been severe. Workers are poorly skilled and job-seekers cannot fill posts in the new economic sectors like information technology and financial services because many are not even functionally literate.
 
  Those who lose their jobs in sunset industries like mining and clothing manufacturing cannot be re-employed because they are not and cannot be made multi-skilled. Foreign and domestic investors often cite the low skills base as a reason for not investing. .
 
  Says Mdladlana: ''Simply too few people have the knowledge and skills to drive up the nation's productivity and thereby expand the resources it needed to eradicate inequality and poverty.''
 
  Fast-forward to a picture of how things can be. In Kwazulu-Natal, pilot projects are bearing fruit. The tourism and hospitality training authority is putting the first tranche of 6,000 young learners through their paces.
 
  They are working in bed and breakfasts and running ecotourism resorts. Their days are tough and pay-packets small, but in time, these young people will be equipped with a package of skills that means they could own their establishments.
 
  It's not only about training entrepreneurs, but also about providing investors with a pool of trained workers. In Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, workers are already being trained to staff a new South African Breweries plant.
 
  Policy-makers hope South Africa can avert the globalisation pattern where emerging economies are often synonymous with sweatshop working conditions. They believe that if workers are adequately skilled and productive, it can improve their quality of life, prospects of work and labour mobility.
 
  The European Union funded a significant proportion of South Africa's new skills and training policy -- it's grant of R 276-million is the EU's biggest ever technical assistance programme. (One US dollar is equal to 6.3 rands.)
 
  For Mdladlana, it is a contribution that will begin to help level the global playing field. ''South African producers will become increasingly well positioned to be real trading partners, expanding the traditional trading highways between Northern countries to include significant exchanges between the North and South, and with Africa and South Africa in particular.''
 
  Eighty percent of the training funds collected by government will go to training authorities or be paid as grants to companies which already have their own training programmes in place. The remainder of the funds will be used to train economically marginalised people like the self-employed in survivalist enterprises, new entrants and domestic workers.
 
  The skills development and training plan will be implemented over several years. SETA's have already been established, levies are payable from April and training has commenced in several pilot projects.
 
This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
 
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