Mamphela Ramphele launched her new political party, Agang, on Saturday.

We can shape our nation with a strategic immigration policy that takes advantage of a global workforce, says Mamphela Ramphele.

Johannesburg - South Africa, soon to celebrate 20 years of freedom, owes much to its African neighbours for political and economic support during our anti-apartheid struggle. However, close historical relations have often not translated into considered bilateral co-operation with regard to our migration policies after 1994.

It is to South Africa’s economic and social detriment that we have not been able to strike the balance between our moral obligations, the contribution of skilled people to our economy and the challenge of overwhelming economic migration.

The lack of a strategic approach to migration and our failure to articulate policies that attract and retain the skills needed to enhance our competitiveness has left us in a situation where we have the worst of all sides of migration. We should be the magnet for Africa’s most talented skilled people and be able to respond systematically to deserving political refugees.

A failure to protect our borders has created a huge burden of uncontrolled movement bringing with it a hostile response from poor people already struggling to survive who feel they are forced to compete with often much more determined migrants and refugees.

This has led to a wave of xenophobic attacks on migrant labourers, which saw deaths of locals and migrants followed by sporadic outbreaks of violence often targeted at darker-skinned Africans.

As Africa’s leading economy, we should have anticipated that our country would become an extremely desirable destination for many of the continent’s migrant workers. South Africa has been unable to manage migration to respond to its own political and economic needs, nor have we fulfilled our obligations to our neighbours and other African allies in this regard.

The lack of effective immigration policy is creating pressures in our labour market and is further distorting an economy that is already underperforming.

We are part of the fastest growing continent yet our projected growth of just 2.1 percent this year compares unfavourably with an average across all African countries over the past 10 years of well over 5 percent.

Migration can carry a threat. But where there are threats, there are opportunities and the question is: How can countries harness these opportunities?

A progressive approach to a global economy and policies relating to migration would include:

* Acknowledging not only that international immigration and migration are realities but that they are likely to become an even more significant factor in the future.

* Acknowledging that states need to agree on shared principles and objectives that can drive their migration policies.

* Encouraging open debate and dialogue among states, tackling both the positive and negative repercussions of migration.

* Acknowledging that the integration of legal migrants is essential to social and political cohesion.

* Providing a working model that facilitates co-operation and consultation between and within states. Co-operation, collaboration and co-ordination within and between states are essential elements of governing and managing migration.

* Adopting policies that stimulate economic growth and create job opportunities on home ground in each nation so that workers are not compelled to migrate.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and understand the contexts in which they happened. South Africa has taught us how migration is tied to identity politics. Africa has shown us that migration can be an incentive to drive local growth and sustainability. And from a global perspective we have learnt that there is no such thing as an isolated economic crisis.

But above all, we’ve learnt that global migration is a fact, and that in the coming years it will only become more apparent. It presents opportunities for states to grow and to prosper, to develop and source new skills and to forge new ties. Only by embracing this reality can we ensure that a global economy gives rise to true global prosperity.

What type of immigration policy should South Africa have?

One of the crucial challenges that confronted our emerging democracy was the extent to which its foreign policy would reflect the ethical and democratic values that underpinned the anti-apartheid struggle. This explains why the cardinal tenets of South African foreign policy during the Mandela presidency were the advancement of human rights, democracy, justice and international law. These noble values need to inform our immigration policy.

But we should have an immigration policy that works for us. One that places our national economic interest first, while recognising our humanitarian obligations to Africa first and the rest of the world.

So, we have to honour our obligations to the AU and the UN. This means our economic interest should play an important role in determining the type of economic migrant we should host. The simple truth is that we are not in a position to accommodate everybody. Our high unemployment rate is such that we simply cannot afford to. We do, however, have obligations to provide a safe haven to political refugees – or those escaping persecution.

Every country in the world has a need for certain key scarce skills. If South Africa cannot produce the skills it needs to power its economy in sufficient numbers in the short to medium term, we have to import such skills. This, however, should be a short-term solution while the country invests in creating a 21st-century education system that produces brilliant young people who can fully participate in the economy.

This is why AgangSA is calling for a radical transformation of the education system. It is about expecting excellence from teachers and pupils. We have to raise the bar and promote excellence. A 30 percent pass mark for matric just does not cut it.

AgangSA believes that in attracting offshore skills, we should go for the low-hanging fruit first. These are skilled South Africans living and working abroad, when their skills could be better used to develop the country. In most instances, the country spent millions in their education but lost them to other parts of the world, mainly because of anxiety over rampant crime. We have to attract the expats back home.

But to do so we must tackle the reasons they left in the first place – the anxiety about safety and security. We have to make people feel secure in their homes, streets, schools and other public places.

Skilled professionals recruited to work in South Africa have described the process of getting work permits as painful. Some of the problems include long delays in processing their applications, poor tracking of information and inability to work for their sponsoring companies while awaiting approval of their work permits.

We need to get rid of the red tape and make it easier to attract the scarce skills the country needs to help grow the economy by 5 percent to 8 percent to create jobs. To this end, it is imperative that we realise that we compete with many other countries in the world for such skills. Great nations have powered their success with foreign-sourced skills. We must leverage our attractiveness as a country to plug the skills gaps.


South Africa has the expertise, experience to develop, implement and monitor a more strategic set of policies to harness the power of international migration for our country’s prosperity. What is missing is leadership to inspire South Africans to reach for greatness and prosperity.

* Mamphela Ramphele is the leader of AgangSA. This is an edited version of an address to The Big Immigration Debate hosted by the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies last week.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star