Skills (and Affirmative Action)

Sorry about the break – my girlfriend, Kellie, was visiting for the weekend and I am also preparing for my maths comprehensive exams this week, so I haven’t had time to get back to the blog. This post was supposed to happen a few days ago, so accept my apologies.

After reading ggw‘s response to Exodus, my earlier post about how many people are working overseas, I came back to some serious issues that still plague South Africa. The problem is that of skills. In people above the age of 35, there are not many non-white South African professionals who have the same skills and experience as their white South African counterparts. Apartheid made sure that such equality was impossible. As such, many white South Africans have years upon years of experience in their fields, which makes them quite valuable to the country. That’s not to say that the last fifteen years haven’t rendered many of those skills completely defunct, but there is something to be said for twenty to thirty years of experience in a field. Furthermore, our education system is only now starting to produce students who’ve received (supposedly) equitable educations: schools became multiracial in the early nineties, making it possible for students to have been educated at schools and universities that aren’t designed to be bad. The result of this is that there is an entire generation of non-white South Africans who have been seriously disadvantaged by Apartheid, despite its collapse more than ten years ago. There are far too many non-whites who don’t have the skills or education to be eligible for skilled jobs. Furthermore, their white counterparts often have experience that outmatches theirs on many fronts: even if a non-white person managed to get a degree in engineering in the nineties, he or she would still be at a disadvantage to a white person with experience starting in the eighties.

Thus was the South African edition of affirmative action born. Given only the above synopsis of the situation, it should be clear to anyone that serious action needed, and needs, to take place. And that is before one takes into account the fact that less than 10% of South Africans are white. (At least in 2001, that was the stat: see 2001 Census in Brief for more.) That is why one sees “Affirmative Action Positions” advertised in public: drastic action is necessary to rectify the situation. That is why the South African government has tried to implement and encourage broad-based BEE (black economic empowerment) schemes between big business and non-white South Africans.

At times, however, things go too far. ggw’s comment about racial quotas on our national cricket team addresses that issue. With sport in particular, the issue of racial quotas has been discussed, argued, vilified and praised by all too many politicians to name. To some extent, that is a part of the problem: the suggestions and policies come from outside the sport because those participating in the sport aren’t trusted to change the sport. Business has been treated in much the same way: the government has enforced various policies encouraging or promoting businesses to transform its demographics. In both sport and business, the questions remain the same. Is the specificity of the reforms necessary? Are the reforms too drastic? And do the reforms cause more harm than good?

I hate solely delineating debates, so I am going to throw my two cents in. In my opinion, these questions about most of the reforms can be answered with a simple yes, no, and no. (In the case of sport, I think that sheer talent can’t be foregone, so a number of policies in that sphere are harmful.) As I’ve outlined above, South Africa has a serious skill imbalance. It also has a serious financial imbalance: whites are generally quite wealthy because of the aforementioned skill imbalance on top of their historically privileged position in society. As a result, drastic affirmative action and other policies are necessary. Without them, the country would have no clear incentive to change, so it wouldn’t. It will make life more difficult for many people for a number of years yet, but it has changed, and will continue to change the social structure in South Africa.

I am not a gung-ho supporter of all BEE/affirmative action legislation, however. More needs to be done to ensure that the average man on the township street benefits from BEE policies. Up to now, that hasn’t really been the case. A small number of people with the right connections have made millions that haven’t gone anywhere near the man on the street. And this needs to be guarded against.

Wow. That was long. And rambling. And it may or may not make a point. But I can’t try to process it all at once any more. I’ll shape my thoughts in the near future. Feel free to comment or contact me if you’d like me to elaborate or give examples.

Exodus

I’m starting to notice the extent of the brain drain South Africa is experiencing at the moment. When I was at home, I barely managed to make contact with any of my friends from high school. A large number of them were working overseas during our long summer holiday, and I started thinking about where many of my friends are going to end up working.

It didn’t take me long to sense that a good number of them won’t be working in South Africa. The vast majority of my friends are white and live comfortably. More importantly, however, they have all received university degrees that are marketable elsewhere in the world. At the moment, a number of my friends were simply spending a few months in the UK or US earning some money. But the prospects of working elsewhere in the world are alluring. (I would know – I am thinking about staying on in the US for a few years.) In my case, it’s just easier to find a job because I am already here and companies are looking to recruit students to start work in June. The starting salary that I am liable to earn dwarfs what I would receive at home, even relative to living costs. And that’s just a financial motivator. As white males, my friends and I are right at the bottom of the pile when it comes to affirmative action, which is really aggressive in South Africa. Many posts are advertised as “Affirmative Action Positions” that are designated to go to groups disadvantaged by Apartheid. (Needless to say, white males do not fall into any such group.) That’s not to say that jobs are impossible to come by: a number of my friends are working in South Africa at the moment or have deals set up for after graduation. But the allure of foreign employment remains for other reasons.

If one’s involved in healthcare, social services or governance, then South Africa is a really good place to be. If, on the other hand, one’s an engineer or involved in a technical field like computer programming, it isn’t quite a hotbed of activity. So a friend of mine who’s just finished his Electrical Engineering degree wants to try his hand in the UK – he wants to be exposed to cutting-edge technology as it’s happening, and being in South Africa won’t give him much exposure. Another acquaintance of mine is currently in the US working for NVIDIA before continuing completing his computer science degree: in his case it’s also clear that he won’t be involved in the same level of development at home.

On top of all these things, South Africa is not the safest place in the world. Crime rates are really high (for reasons I’ve already touched on) and white paranoia (and wealth) doesn’t make the situation seem any better for middle- to upper-class South Africans. Going to live in Canada or New Zealand is a much safer move.

But it isn’t necessarily a moral one. I know that I want to return to South Africa, despite its problems. If anything, I should do something about its problems because I have access to so many resources. How to do so is a question I haven’t answered as of yet, but it’s something I’m thinking about. Any and all decisions I may make are littered with moral landmines, but I’ll see how I can navigate them as time goes by.

Thoughts on South Africa (Interlude)

I don’t have many thoughts to share at this exact moment in time, but I feel I should wish Ben all the best for his upcoming stint in South Africa. He’s going to be working at hospitals in KZN (near Durban, I would think) to improve the government’s roll out of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. After a landmark case brought against the government by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC),  ARV’s are supposed to be free to all South Africans. The actual rollout of ARV’s has been incredibly slow, so a lot of work needs to be done in order to make drugs available everywhere.

The problems that follow are not insignificant, however. There are all sorts of social and cultural problems that need to be overcome before truly widespread use of ARV’s can become a reality. (I don’t speak out of ignorance on this point: in 2005 I volunteered with the Bambisanani Project, an AIDS outreach organisation, so I understand some of the problems faced in rolling out ARV’s as well as the other roadblocks causing problems.) More on that will be coming soon enough, and Ben will definitely have his own opinions in the near future, so you should have a look at what he has to say.

Thoughts of Home (The Prelude)

There are a number of thoughts about South Africa that I’ve had over the last few weeks. Being at home and having a decent amount of time on my hands gave me the opportunity to re-encounter and sharpen a number of thoughts that I’ve been mulling for some time now. This post won’t quite get into a number of those thoughts, but it will start in on one or two of them.

For starters, I’ve started thinking about employment in South Africa in a fairly abstract sense. I don’t mean personal employment, but rather the employment opportunities available to millions of South Africans. These opportunities are really scarce – the last time I checked, estimates of our unemployment rates were somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. It doesn’t take a genius to see why theft, robbery, fraud, et al are so prevalent in South Africa – people don’t have means of acquiring wealth legally. That’s not the main problem, however. Before I left high school in 2002, I could already tell what that was, but I don’t know how much has been done to address the situation. The problem is quite simple: far too many South Africans receive terrible educations. The effects of Apartheid are brutally evident in our education system, where a large number of schools have continued to offer a similarly poor level of education in spite of Apartheid’s demise. As a result, we not only have millions of people who received poor educations under Apartheid, we are not producing the intellectual capital needed to increase levels of employment. It’s a vicious cycle, because we need better teachers, who themselves need to have been educated. We also need people capable of doing more than manual labour or simple clerking duties. And then we have AIDS…

And that is enough for now. I don’t have the energy to broach AIDS and its ramifications quite yet. But I will soon. (So stay tuned.)

Observations on Airports and Planes

After flying with British Airways on two Boeing planes, I must say that I find Airbus planes to be much more comfortable. The issue starts with legroom. I am 6’2″ and legroom isn’t only about comfort; it’s about me having enough room to fall asleep in. On the Airbus A340, I simply have more legroom. And then there is the issue of the personalised entertainment available on the Airbus. It may be that new Boeings also have it available, but the two that I flew on only offered scheduled viewing on small screens. Needless to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy my flights.

[End whining.] One of the other things I noticed while on my way back from SA was Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport. It is, in fact, quite hard to avoid noticing Terminal 4 once you are inside. Well, it’s hard not to notice the stores that populate Terminal 4, if not the terminal itself. It’s hard not to notice stores like Cartier, Chanel, Swarovski and Harrod’s in an airport. From my experience of airports, this is not normal! There are normally places to east and a few places to buy jewellery and clothes, but they tend not to be quite as illustrious as the above names. People travelling by air are clearly wealthy to some extent, but I never expected to be classed with someone who would be buying a sparkly “trinket” from Swarovski. It was an odd sight, made twice as odd by the fact that I was already jet-lagged. Maybe that would contribute to people actually buying items from these stores, but I am not a psychologist, so I can’t answer that.

I can (and most probably will) remain mystified, however.

Posted in Travel. 2 Comments »

Apologies

Sorry about the lengthy gap in posts. I mentioned my final exams in mid-December, but they overtook (and overpowered) me in the week and a half before I flew home just before Christmas. As a result, I didn’t leave a written warning about my impending trip to South Africa, where I have limited access to the internet using an unreliable dial-up connection. (And yes, this is a connection provided by Telkom, South Africa’s much-maligned telephone services provider – see Hellkom for more.) And then I was at home for three weeks. In terms of connectivity, this visit home was better than my last one in August, where we didn’t have a phone for more than a week, if I remember correctly. This time it was for just under a day. Still, I didn’t have the time to compose blog posts, so you have my apologies for that, as well as for not warning you of the silence that reigned supreme for the last month.

I’ll have more to say over the next few weeks, but for now let this photograph of a butterfly represent something of my time at home. The photograph was taken on our farm on the last day of December. Enjoy. (The fullsize photo can be seen here.)

Butterfly