Pan-African approach to establish an integrated system for the free movement of labour

As our lives become increasingly wrapped up in the digital world, so has the nature and means of the work we do. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixbabay.

As our lives become increasingly wrapped up in the digital world, so has the nature and means of the work we do. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixbabay.

Published Mar 23, 2024


By Daniel Novitzkas, Chairperson at Specno

Twenty years may mean very little to some.

But in the business world, 20 years is a lifetime: it is not unheard of for companies and industries to have lived and died in the amount of time it takes a newborn to become an eligible voter.

Remember the iPod? Remember DVD’s? Only the overly nostalgic care and even fewer wonder as to what exactly killed off these once-ubiquitous icons of their respective industries. Several factors contribute to the death of an industry, but two intertwined conditions seem to be ever-present when a technology or business passes away: novelty and dynamism.

Dynamic economies are healthy, versatile, and future-proof.

However, just like that orchid you received as a house-warming gift, a healthy economy requires a nurturing and suitable environment in order to flourish. Look to the thriving economies of the world and you will see a relative lack of red tape, ready access to capital, functioning infrastructure, a susceptible market, and a talented pool of labour.

In South Africa, a number of these factors are either lacking or wholly problematic (as our faltering power grid clearly demonstrates).

Unfortunately, a number of these traits cannot be legislated for, and some will require a significant time investment before bearing any fruit.

Luckily, we do have some control over our skilled labour force - although some changes will be required if we want to leverage this talent in a manner that supports the dynamic growth of Africa’s digital economy.

Visas for skilled workers are older than the Republic of South Africa – take the US, for example, which began offering work visas for critical industries as early as 1952, a practice that it continues to benefit from to this day. Countries that can attract more talent will continue to reap the benefits these workers bring.

For a recent example, look to Ireland’s pharmaceuticals sector, for proactively leveraging external talent to maintain the economic momentum created by a number of smart investments and policies to grow a nascent sector of their economy.

As our lives become increasingly wrapped up in the digital world, so has the nature and means of the work we do.

It is no surprise then, that the past decade has seen the emergence of a new group of skilled workers, by the name of digital nomads.

This labour force is able to exploit the freedoms allowed by a mostly laptop-based work process, and they offer a unique opportunity to grow the digital economy in Africa today.

There is an acknowledgement among several intergovernmental organisations in Africa that an integrated system that promotes the free movement of labour across our borders will remain critical to growing nascent sectors of individual economies on the continent.

Article 10 of the East African Community (EAC), for example, explicitly encourages the unfettered movement of people, goods, labour, services, and capital between member states. At the same time, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which South Africa is a member of, has set out on a similar journey that will, hopefully, one day culminate with similar outcomes for all African states and peoples.

These concerns are quite relevant to businesses operating in Africa because talented digital nomads can play a leading role in our efforts to grow Africa’s digital economy, in a novel and dynamic way.

Sadly, South Africa has arrived a little late to this party.

The Department of Home Affairs has reported that, between 2015 and 2021, a yearly low average of 2,200 skilled workers entered South Africa, implying a rejection rate of 52%; for business visas, this figure is as high as 68%. In the same breath, the very body enforcing this restrictive regime has taken up the charge to implement digital nomad visas, which was only launched as recently as 3 weeks ago.

So, what more can be done in the face of this kind of governmental impediment?

In the interim, local businesses can future-proof themselves by outsourcing these skills to agencies which offer specialised digital training to their own employees. This human-based import substitution is best demonstrated in an industry as dynamic as that of software development.

Not all companies, and especially not those small-to-medium-sized businesses that are set to continue to grow, can realistically maintain the force of talented in-house developers required to operate and adapt to their business’s digital needs; this is particularly crucial given that companies’ digital needs evolve at the same breakneck pace as the wider digital landscape itself.

Thus, it makes sense to call on experts and outsource your digital development needs to agencies and businesses which not only specialise in meeting your requirements but stay ahead of trends as well, thereby keeping businesses relevant and functional to promote proactive, not reactive, enterprises.

Companies should actively seek out partners that offer continual training, education, and upskilling to their in-house teams - these would be the agencies that recognise the skills gap created by our visa regime yet have taken a proactive “South African” approach to plug it.

These businesses are knowledge-intensive and, as much as they are enabled by hardware, they recognise the need to make significant investments in their most productive assets, their staff. These are the digital innovation agencies that remain on the cutting edge of digital innovation in Africa, regardless of any impediment or challenge. Embracing these partners will not only improve one’s business commercial outcomes and general efficiency, but will also help champion the growth of our country’s digital economy - even when government lags behind.