Competitiveness Forum tackles education, labour

education-forum Dr Adam Gordon, acting director of Wits Business School, Warren Hero of Eduloan and Nalini Naicker from the Gauteng Planning Commission on the panel for the discussion of education, skills and labour. Gordon said that these three issues are in an integrated space, and our key reputation issues are related to them.
(Image: Nokuphila Nyawo)

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The inaugural Competitiveness Forum hosted by Brand South Africa gathered more than 200 representatives from government, business, labour, civil society and academia at Gallagher Estate in Midrand, Johannesburg, on 5 November.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane addressed the forum, which aimed to define competitiveness and ask why South Africa must endorse ambition.

“This forum will harness the collective wisdom of various sector leaders in an effort to meet the quality standards of the local and world markets,” Motlanthe said.

“If we are to be competitive we must have in place sound economic policies, cultivate a favourable legal and business environment, roll out socioeconomic infrastructure, constantly improve our trade and industrial policies and lower the cost of doing business.”

After the opening the forum broke away into five separate sessions, each discussing competitiveness in relation to education, skills and labour, infrastructure, foreign direct investment, governance and leadership, and manufacturing and related services.

Miller Matola, chief executive officer of Brand South Africa, encouraged delegates to come up with insights and an action plan for the much-needed development and change in South Africa.

“This is a conversation by South Africans, for South Africans. It is time we asked questions about how we can become a destination of choice and what makes us matter in the global scheme.”

Delegates agreed that solid education was the foundation of a working society, and “pillars of discipline and direction” were needed. The consensus was that education infrastructure in South Africa was a “fractured authority”.

“We urgently need investment for health and education,” said Colin Coleman, a partner managing director at Goldman Sachs International.

Motlanthe said poverty, inequality and unemployment create a sense of hopelessness. “To improve our competitiveness we need to grow a critical mass of a population that is able to fully participate in their own socioeconomic development, thus pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

In the education and labour breakaway session, panel chair Adam Gordon, acting director of Wits Business School, said the country needs to be aware of the changing landscape in the new Africa story.

“This must be seen as the renewal of a continent,” he said. “South Africa must be seen as the place to do business.

“The worldwide macro trend is one of urbanisation. In approximately five years, over 60% of the world will live in cities. We are now a city-based people, and this has a huge impact as more bodies are middle class than ever before and this will all happen in Africa.”

He added that the global trend is the transference of intellect via the knowledge economy. To move ahead, countries must keep learning and improving their skills. Gordon said South Africans must “up our game” to be competitive and inspire a confident reputation.

Education issues in South Africa

The many voices at the education, skills and labour forum agreed that there should be a critical focus on language. Investment in book and literature projects is essential to spread literacy throughout the population.

Nalini Naicker of the Gauteng Planning Commission said it was imperative to ensure early childhood development and nutrition to nurture young minds. She said technology for children is key: every child has a basic human right to access to the internet. Naicker also suggested a fix for the education crisis in the form of a tax break for those paying for a child’s education, which would have the benefit of easing the financial burden on government.

Another suggestion was promoting teaching as a respected and prestigious profession. Gordon said teachers are valued in only a handful of countries – such as France, Australia and Finland.

“It is essential that teachers are given the opportunity for on-going skills development,” he said.

Naicker said every learner has a basic right to free education. “There are now more classrooms than ever before but we don’t provide 100% free education, or high-quality education. How do we grow future leaders in this country, when the university entrance requirement for potential teachers is so low? A basic requirement is to grow brilliance.”

She challenged taxes on textbooks: why were books taxed if free education was the way to create a knowledge economy. “This knowledge must be made available freely.”

Naicker said the community and business must work with government to come up with the solutions the country needs to relieve the burden on the government. Partnerships, she said, were the only way South Africa would find and implement remedies that would heal and grow South Africa as a place where all can thrive and contribute to the economy.

Delegates agreed there needed to be a multidisciplinary approach to education, to close the gap between competence and performance. The quality of skills produced must be looked at. Higher education institutions should work with the government and business to ensure that they cater for market demand.

Graduates should be placed in hubs where they learn the skills required for the formal economy; countries such as Korea and Singapore mentor graduates in such hubs to prepare them to meet market needs.

Professor Terri Carmichael, director special projects, at Wits Business School said that as she deals with higher learning she sees the lack of fundamental knowledge with numeracy and literacy.

“The solution is teacher education and teacher competence and the practical application of qualifications.”

Delegates also cited the lack of internet capability, which they believed was putting South Africans – particularly pupils and teachers – at risk of being unable to barter in the knowledge economy. The forum agreed that SA lags in the ability to innovate and make technological advances. These were obstacles to investment.

Management and labour

The forum agreed that in terms of labour it is important to ask why workers are so unhappy and why there is a gap between management income and the general workforce. They felt that labour unions pose a threat to the country and ideally South Africans need to stop working in silos.

Gordon said that management acumen and experience is not up to standard. The country needs to look at management skills and competencies. He adds that South Africa doesn’t have the requisite skills to manage and lead and there needs to be an interface between employees and employers.

Education, skills and labour is an integrated space, and “Our key reputation issues are related to these three areas.”

Delegates commented that policies and legislation make it difficult for professionals to stay on home turf as qualified people leave the country as labour laws inhibit employment, and the small business sector needs policy reform.

Other reputation risks include a lack of investment in research and development, and the perception that the economy is hostile to manufacturers.

There was general consensus that South Africans “are our own problem” and are unable to market the country.

Our national/international competitiveness

Delegates said there were many positive reputation enhancers; the best business schools in Africa, good financial service skills, and the many international students at our tertiary institutions.

They added that there is a highly valued skilled ex-patriot community which points to pockets of excellence within the South African education system.

South Africa is also a continental leader in sport participation.

Warren Hero of Eduloan remarked that as a diverse nation, South Africans have the ability to work together and the country has a very young population that can drive the economy.

The country’s legal system was deemed fair and just, with South Africans able to enforce their rights.

Naicker adds: “We have great scientists that have researched anti-retroviral drugs for our HIV and Aids pandemic. The national health insurance plan is imminent and will be beneficial for a large portion of the population. We have good policies but we need them to be implemented”, as ensuring a healthy workforce drives productivity and the country’s economy.

Gordon said that SA needs to make immediate changes in education, as we are forging ahead with economic emergence but lagging in education.

Delegates agreed that South Africa must be recognised for “coming so far as a country”.

Happy Ntshingila, Brand South Africa deputy chairperson, said that there were key outcomes for the competitiveness forum; these included using institutional capacity, skills and knowledge to drive competitiveness and strengthen initiatives to deliver quality education.

“South Africa’s growth and development is the next big thing for our country. Twenty years after democracy, it is a sustainable future that must drive each of us.”