Fighting hard to keep out the jobs and skills we need
I had some of the best pasta I've ever tasted in a little Italian restaurant near Cape Town the other day. I can't actually describe how good it was. I'm not a foodie or a food writer, but I swear it was absolutely extraordinary. Trust me, I'm a journalist.
The restaurant is run by actual Italians. They employ six black South Africans. The department of home affairs is threatening to revoke the Italians' work permits.
It can't be anything substantive, though as I've written here recently the government's critical skills list is being cut back sharply, meaning it feels we need fewer skills because we can do most things ourselves. It could be that the ability and experience required to produce the pasta I had the other day is now widely available among South Africans themselves.
Nothing depresses me more about our country than our attitude towards immigration. We fight to keep people out. I've just heard that the CEO of a major foreign-owned company has had to return home and re-apply for a work permit. His company employs more than 5,000 South Africans.
What are we doing? Our political class is trampling around the country ahead of the election promising people more jobs without any hope of being able to create them. Even the EFF has added the jobs mantra to its usual diet of land and, er, land.
ANC economic policy has destroyed jobs. Having no electricity does that. The DA claims it has "created" the most jobs of anywhere in the country in the Western Cape but it's an unverifiable assertion. Its leader, Mmusi Maimane, is big on jobs, promising one "in every home" on the campaign trail. The EFF has no idea how to create jobs other than getting arms of the state to employ people.
But my Italian restaurateur is the answer staring us all in the face and it is only our combined aversion to foreigners, and our unexamined inferiority complex, that stops us seeing how they are the answer to this "jobs" crisis.
We South Africans are smart people, but it turns out many foreigners have skills we've lost. Remember, to create more jobs, we first need to create more employers.
Twenty-five years ago we were the 44th-most complex economy in the world. We trained patternmakers (look it up), we could re-engineer Mirage engines to give the Argentine air force, during the Falklands War back in 1982, sufficient range to hunt and sink the British guided-missile destroyer, HMS Sheffield, with an Exocet missile possibly made in SA as well. Back in 1995, we manufactured and exported a greater variety of goods than China or Thailand.
Today we're the 67th-most complex economy in the world. We're just ahead of the holiday islands of Trinidad and Tobago. We've lost so much. And as skills, black and white, leave the country in increasing numbers our greatest challenge, surely, is to replace them.
Not, as the departments of labour and higher education & training seem to think, through our wonderful education system. The only way to replace skill and experience is to import what is leaving.
And it would be so easy. SA, for all its troubles, is a great place. People from around the world would flock to live here if we let them.
Former Investec boss Stephen Koseff is quoted as saying we need 800,000 skilled immigrants in SA now. All the state has to do is open our doors on one condition - that every adult immigrant to SA creates three new and sustainable jobs.
Maimane has made the important point in this campaign: instead of setting up special economic zones in distressed parts of the country, he says, rather declare the entire country a special economic zone. Let people come here and start businesses and hire South Africans.
There is simply no way to pass on skills other than physically. My Italian chef could write me his pasta recipe a thousand times and it would never yield the same result as him being next to me in the kitchen, guiding my hands, showing me exactly how. And as he is doing for the South Africans in his kitchen, so could thousands of immigrants do for the rest of us. We simply have no idea what we don't know any more. The ANC is deaf. Officials are even worse. They actively chase skills away.
President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to see home affairs as arguably his most critical cabinet appointment after the election. He needs a brave and determined reformer. My pick would be Ebrahim Patel - a little out of his current stream, I know, but the years in economic development will have taught him how close we are to the edge.