We need people who can fix a lot more than cars

16 January 2013 - 02:07
By Peter Delmar

I must admit that, until this past Sunday, I'd never heard of Manny de Canha or the company he runs, Associated Motor Holdings.

De Canha, I now know, is in the car business and, according to Sunday's Business Times, he is very worried about our country's dire and growing shortage of mechanics.

According to him, South Africa should be churning out some 6000 grease monkeys per year, but is only producing 500 or so annually.

De Canha told the paper how we would soon not have enough people to fix our cars.

And those mechanics we do have, he implied, were becoming a bit big for their boots.

"When you have a shortage there is a reluctance to discipline those people in case they walk out," De Canha was reported as saying.

"The minute you have a shortage of skills in an industry, standards in that industry will drop because you can't apply the discipline you need to get it up to the necessary level."

Elsewhere in the same paper the curmudgeonly but eminently readable Stephen Mulholland made mention of the alarming fact that our beleaguered national carrier, SAA, was sending its aircraft engines overseas for service because they didn't have the techies to do the job in-house.

In another section of the same paper we had the boss of the University of Johannesburg, Ihron Rensburg, noting that, as happens every year at this time of year, "thousands of successful matriculants are trying to gain entry to one of South Africa's 23 tertiary institutions".

Van Rensburg predicted that, unlike last year, this time around UJ would not have the massive and chaotic queues of last-minute applicants baying for admission to its hallowed academic portals because this time it had done some planning.

When I was a youngster my late father, a fitter and turner and toolmaker, tried to encourage me to do something practical for a living.

"Working with your hands", the old man always told me, was the most edifying, the most noble way to earn your crust. As is now history, I disappointed him, opting instead of doing something practical for a namby-pamby degree majoring in journalism and African politics. While the old man could fix absolutely any part of his Ford Cortina, my DIY skills extend not very far beyond changing lightbulbs and car tyres.

On yet another page of the same newspaper it was reported, under the headline "State does nothing as mines shed jobs", that the Department of Mineral Resources' tepid response to the distressing possible closure of Harmony's Kusasalethu mine (with the loss of more than 6000 jobs) was to "urge the employer to involve the CCMA and to try to find an alternative to retrenchments". (This was on the same page that reported how foreign investors now don't want to touch anything that involves digging holes in this country.)

One understands the Minister of Mineral Resources' art collection is absorbing the greater part of her attention at the moment, but just the slightest sign of creative thinking and proactivity on the part of our political betters would be more than welcome.

To suggest that Harmony should look to the CCMA to ensure there is a meaningful tomorrow for the 6200 Carletonvillers who now face unemployment is disingenuous in the extreme. The thinking that informed the creation of the CCMA - and an environment in which employers struggle to get rid of the incompetent and unwilling and are too scared to discipline the work-shy - is one of two legs underpinning our failure to attract investment and create enterprises and jobs. The other leg is our woeful performance in school education.

We are producing matriculants who are clever enough to get degrees that will equip them to become government departmental spokespeople or art historians, but we don't have the school-leavers with the maths and science they need to become boilermakers or car mechanics.

Our school teachers lack discipline, the discipline to teach properly. Our ministers of mineral resources are so lacking in self-discipline that they can splurge R3.7-million on a single piece of art of questionable merit while their constituents drown in a sea of poverty and unemployment, and those mechanics who have jobs are becoming a law unto themselves.

The likes of De Canha, I would suggest, are wasted in the motor business; people like him should, instead, be in the cabinet.