March 13, 2012, by Simon McGrath

South Africa – skills and underdevelopment

South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, in spite of nearly 20 years of public policy efforts to address this issue. Over these 20 years, skills have played a central role in this policy response. Why did South Africa think that skills were so important to its response to its developmental challenges and what explains the limited impact that the focus on skills has had?

Due to its dual legacy of colonialism and Apartheid, South Africa experienced a unique and particularly profound model of unequal development during the 20th Century in which racially-defined access to work, education and skills were at the heart of state-sanctioned inequality. Unsurprisingly, it was trade unionists and school children who were at the spearhead of the revival of resistance in the 1970s. Faced with the twin imperatives of developing social policy to promote equity and redress, and economic policies to develop integration into the global economy, education and training policy was a central element of the ANC’s policy toolkit.

This imagined a Post-Fordist future in which both capital and labour could benefit from a new social contract around higher skills, wages and productivity.  This was to be built through a new corporatist structure overlaying skills policies such as a new human resources development architecture, strong sectoral bodies and a national qualifications framework.

Whilst there has undoubtedly been major systemic change and incremental improvements against key indicators, it is clear that poverty, unemployment and inequality remain high and the economy has not been transformed.

What went wrong? First, there does not seem to have been enough realisation that skills development is better understood as part of the enabling environment for socio-economic transformation rather than a key driver. Second, the South African political transformation took the form of a negotiated compromise and this compromise militated against radical reform. Third, although South Africa could borrow ideas from the East Asian developmental states, it possessed neither the state nor societal capacity for development of those countries. Fourth, at the same time the skills policies contained a vital conceptual flaw as they sought to marry this developmental state approach with heavy borrowing from British neoliberal skills reforms. This resulted in a system that was both over-ambitious and internally contradictory.

Simon McGrath (Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

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