4. April 2010

Minister Nzimande calls for an interventionist state in South Africa

Bonginkosi Emmanuel,Blade‘ Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training as well as General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, spoke in Vienna about the challenges of his portfolio, lack of social commitment by the private sector, rising political populism and the need for economic redistribution in his country.
The interview was conducted by Walter Sauer (Southern Africa Documentation and Co-operation Centre / SADOCC) on March 11, 2010 during the Minister’s participation in the Bologna Process 10th Anniversary celebrations in Vienna (Austria).

Minister, thousands of students are protesting out there against the Bologna process, while at the same time you participate in the anniversary event. What are South Africa’s expectations with regard to the Bologna process?

Nzimande: Well, look, we as a country and as a region, Southern Africa, we have a relationship with the European Union. The EU is of course quite an important player, internationally as well as in our region and continent. We also have got cooperation programmes specifically on higher education. For instance there is this ERASMUS MUNDUS programme between developing countries and the EU and we are part of that as South Africa. It is an exchange programme but in the main it is South African students and academics coming to Europe for upgrading their qualifications and also getting exposure and so on. So with regard to that and our participation here as part of our relationship, the Bologna process is something we are interested in because we think that its outcome, when it will be fully implemented, is not something that is going to affect only the EU countries, it is also going to have an impact globally. So it is better that we familiarise ourselves with this and have a look at its implications.
And we are possibly also to make our own input. Indeed, we are concerned, you see, that as much as the Bologna process is to create this European higher education area, the EU also is actually sensitised as to what are the possible implications of this for developing countries. I think that is very important. So this is why, when we were invited to come and participate, we thought that it was important for us to take part in this process. I have to say though, that I am struck that in to some of the things the Bologna process is implementing we are actually quite far advanced in South Africa in some respects, when it comes to qualification frameworks for higher education, accreditation and standards, and quality assurance in particular. So it is important therefore that we interact and that we familiarise ourselves with what is going on. And that we also ensure that as developing countries where we feel that where our interests are threatened we do need to engage with the EU insofar as this is concerned.

Did you have talks with the EU in the course of this visit?

Nzimande: Yes, we met with the representatives of the European Commission today. The aim really was to look at the programmes of South Africa and the EU, where they are, possible future areas of cooperation in higher education. One of the main things that we raised and which is a huge challenge for us was of course skills development. What can we learn from each other? And what forms of cooperation can we embark upon. And also, we have got a pending Joint Declaration between the EU and South Africa on higher education. So, it was to say, pending that declaration, are there issues that we want to discuss and raise and sort of finalise that joint declaration?

As I understand, your department for the first time combines higher education with vocational training. Does this signal an increased interested on part of the government in skills development?

Nzimande: As a matter of fact, this administration that was installed in May last year has taken a decision which is important. We have many, many priority issues but instead of tackling the whole world of our problems at the same time it is better that we actually prioritise, but prioritise in such a manner that the areas that we have picked on will have a multiplyer effect in terms of the rest of the challenges that we have. So we have prioritised five areas: One is jobs, decent work, as we put it; the second is health, then fighting crime, the fourth is rural development, and the fifth education and skills development, This, as the President says, is the APEX priority.
So in terms of priorities for our own development, that key task is to increase post-school access specially to young people but also to adults, ongoing adult education and training. But our bigger problem is with the youth. Because you have got millions of young people in South Africa who have finished school or are out of school without having finished it but do not intend or are unable to go back to school. To them we have to provide training opportunities as a necessary socio-political imperative. We are estimating that out of the 6,8 mio. young people between 18 and 24 years of age just under 3 million are not in education, are not in employment and are not in training. This is frankly a huge wastage of resource and of the energies of young people.
We also need to begin to say, ‘Here is a resource. How do we use this resource for skills development? Because we do have a shortage of skills in a number of very critical areas, from basic things like artisans, paraprofessionals and so on, that we need to be tackling. Of course we are not going to abandon higher level skills, science and technology, research at a higher level, the need for more PhDs, also as an essential part of innovation in our country. So, skills development is really a very, very central plank of our mandate.

What are the main obstacles you face in implementing this mandate? Financial resources? Infrastructure? Political resistance or arrogance ?

Nzimande: Of course, the first challenge is resources. There are lots of resources in South Africa in the private sector but they are not the kinds of resources that we can, for some time to come, direct to some public outcome. At the same time we don’t have adequate resources as government. Even more so in this period of economic recession which has also had a huge impact on South Africa. We have collected less tax, you see, significantly less actually than we had projected and predicted. But you know, at the same time we have got a very sophisticated framework of education and training systems, conceptually and institutionally, and the challenge here is how to harmonise what we have, and get it to produce the kinds of results that we want. As I said, for instance in terms of accreditation and quality assurance systems we are quite far advanced even compared to some of the more developed countries. But the issue is then how do we translate that into the kinds of outcomes that we want, which is skills development and more access to higher education.
But having said that, one of the key challenges that we have is capacity building: How to build our formal education institutions to be more accessible and also to ensure that those who access higher education and training, to also become educationally successful? And those are our twin challenges, the obstacles: access as well as success, especially in formal universities and colleges.
Another significant challenge is: How do we maximally use and prioritise the resources that we have, even within higher education and training. Of course, I have got huge opportunities now because unlike over the past 16 years, we have for the first time now brought together higher education and skills development systems. Before they were in separate departments, and it was not easy to create the kind of synergies that we want. Now all that is under one roof, it actually does provide huge opportunities for us to really make a difference.

You have mentioned the private sector. On the one hand, it should be in the interest of employers to have a well-educated labour force, on the other hand they always, at least in a country like Austria, complain about lack of resources and that the state should do it. Is there a similar debate in South Africa?

Nzimande: Yes, there is. The problem with the private sector is that they think very short-term. And the role of the public sector is to provide longer term perspectives and objectives. One of the successes we have made as democratic government since the late nineties was, among other things, to introduce a levy system – 1% of the pay roll of companies that have got more than 50 people. That money is meant to be used for skills development. It is required by law. If we had not done that, the private sector would actually not respond as far as this challenge is concerned. Even now, some companies just pay this one percent but that’s it! They just treat is as a tax and don’t think that beyond that they have got to do more. Because the levy that we collect can be used for training by the employers, they can claim back 70% of the money. So, therefore we have to mobilise and to persuade the private sector, otherwise we have got to use the law – well, it is a combination of carrot and stick, really. Those who are doing OK we will incentivise, but for those that are not doing OK, are there additional measures that we are able to take in here in order to ensure that training takes place. I mean, you are correct – ideally one would think that the private sector has an interest in having a skilled labour force; but because of short-termism that is not happening. This means that we have got to strengthen the public sector to play a more interventionist role in order to create conditions for us to address, amongst other things, skills shortages.

For some time it seemed that South Africa gave plenty of space to market forces. Now you talk about an interventionist state. Has the general direction of the country been reversed?

Nzimande: Well, unfortunately we went through a period from about 1996 when there was a government policy orientation which was towards a minimalist role for the state and to allow the private sector to play a greater role. But that has changed now. For instance, we moved away from the whole idea of privatising state-owned companies. Instead we believe that those state-owned companies have got an important role to play in addressing poverty and unemployment in our country. Instead we should be saying for instance in education and training, how do we harness the potential that state-owned companies have in training artisans, for example. Under Apartheid, they played a crucial role in training white artisans but now when we took this role of a minimalist state, we partly destroyed the capacity of the state-owned companies to play a role in training. And that is what we want to resuscitate. But also where necessary the state must take a lead in making investment in the area of education and training, and in that we are also hoping that we will attract the private sector to come – through incentives, and in some instances through the stick. Ideally we can get the employers cooperating, like we saw in Germany where there is actually an extensive system of training for young people with the participation of the employers. But when we identify gaps the state would also have to act and ensure that we create skills.
In fact it should be expected that any company that hopes to play a role in South Africa for some years to come will have to invest in training, in research and development, because it is in their interest to do that. We need to create jobs, and that will not be viable unless there is a serious, serious investment into skills development.

Will that be valid also for foreign investors?

Nzimande: Definitely. We are already saying to both foreign and South African companies:‘What role are you playing in skills development?’ For instance, we had this situation with the arms deal where there was promise of some off-set programmes that were going to have an impact on the broader South African economy, but unfortunately skills development was not one of them. We also have the Investment Policy Action Plan as announced recently by the Minister of Trade and Industry. One of the things contained in that plan is that when resource material from outside is used, we should have a medium-term plan to ensure that at the same time some local manufacturing capacity is built, be it in the automotive industry or elsewhere, including opportunities for training. As Minister Davies would say if we are building a public transport system and you have got to import busses because there is no capacity to produce busses inside the country, you should give to a company an incentive like a longer-term contract but as part of providing those services it must make sure that there is also a contribution towards building our own local manufacturing capacity.

You speak about a more interventionist role of the state, of making the private sector comply with developmental goals of the government – politically highly controversial targets. Will it be possible to implement them? And as you also are the leader of an important political party, and member of the Alliance, how do you assess the present political balance of forces in South Africa?

Nzimande: One of the critical things that is important for us to succeed in the area of education and training, and especially in skills development, is a stronger trade union organisation to ensure that employers do actually make a contribution. and also to ensure that as we scale up placement of apprentices and other young workers, they are not used as cheap labourers to replace more permanent workers. That is actually a challenge that we face. But this is a critical element in trying to shift the balance of forces in favour of the kind of objectives that we have. But also ironically, with this kind of economic crisis we need to identify opportunities. The number of companies that are becoming more dependent on the government procurement in order to survive and sustain the crisis is growing. Over the next three years or so we are going to spend more than 800 billion Rand on infrastructure, and many of these services are going to be provided by the private sector which is in distress, and they need this government procurement programme. So, how do we use that? But the state is in fact in a stronger position to then say, ‘Well, if you are going to get a slice of the cake, this is what you are expected to do If you get the contract in the infrastructure investment of government you must also do something about training’. We need to spell that out.
Of course, the overall balance of forces is not in favour of the developing world, for quite some time now, even more so with the crisis. But in South Africa we have the relative advantage of being a relatively developed capitalist economy. We must make sure that the dependency of the private sector on the government procurement is used. I think that the crisis bad as it is can also provide an opportunity.

Reading South African newspapers, one gets the impression that there is a high-standard, intellectual political discourse on the one hand but also a lot of populism, even hate-speech on the other. How do you assess the style of political debate in South Africa?

Nzimande: We are a very vibrant democracy in many respects. We have respect for the media, they write whatever they like, sometimes to the irritation of some of us, but nevertheless…

… sometimes politicians make these statements, not the media!

Nzimande: Well, that is true. So, there is robust debate and robust engagement. Of course, when we are faced with the challenges that we are faced with, a country that emerges from centuries of oppression and exploitation of the majority, there will always be a danger of populist statements. Whilst we must respond to popular demands and issues that generally are raised by the people, we must be very cautious of populism because under these difficult conditions populism has the potential into degenerating into something much more serious, into a kind of neo-fascist type of politics, you know, mobilising and using the conditions of the poor not to advance their conditions of poverty but in order to actually entrench an elite. You know, Europe gravitated into fascism as a result of largely a right-wing populist demagogic responses by someone like Hitler and Mussolini, peddling also anti-semitism and so on, arising out of difficult conditions that people were facing. To a certain extent, even today,you also see some right-wing populism in Europe itself emerging. In some countries you are seeing the rise of racist right-wing populist parties mobilising for instance on the basis of being opposed to immigration which the European Union wants to attract from the former Eastern Bloc Socialist countries. And I am not saying that we are immune to that in South Africa… Ah, I must be honest with you. I think we could be doing much better as a country. But there are indeed some reckless statements that are being made also from within our own ranks, statements some of them are a bit dangerous. They are playing to the gallery. It is the task of leadership to actually focus the nation instead around these five priorities, and not to allow an opportunistic element to prevail.

In 1994, leadership was advancing a concept of national reconciliation. Is this concept relevant still today? And if yes, what would it mean in the present situation?

Nzimande: I think the concept of national reconciliation is even more relevant today. In the earlier phase of our offensive to defeat Apartheid embarking on national reconciliation was at the understanding that it was necessary also in order to stabilise the situation so that we were able to do things better. In this sense, national reconciliation is still necessary but I think we have entered a new phase now where for national reconciliation to be meaningful it must be contributing to an inclusive growth-path in which all ordinary South Africans are going to benefit. In that perspective national reconciliation has always been in the interest of ordinary people. I am not saying our government has not done that. We have had the provision of water, electricity, housing, access to education, doing away with racially-based schools and so on. We have really done lots of things to redress apartheid policies, but the problem is that the economy still remains in the hands of the same old white capitalist class as under Apartheid. It is valid for transitions in many countries that if you reach a political settlement but without tackling the economy and the need for redistribution, you may find that the political settlement actually gets scuttled because of the lack of similar changes in the economy so that you cannot have a more inclusive growth and development path. So that is absolutely essential for national reconciliation. And you can’t have an one-sided understanding of national reconciliation that is only privileging the interests of the richer and the better-off at the direct expense of the people. (SADOCC)


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