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"The restructuring of apartheid era industrial education and training is undeniably one of the key challenges to be addressed in the democratisation and transformation of the South African economy. For almost a decade the democratic movement has been developing proposals for a post-apartheid education and training system. The publication of the Green Paper on Skills Development in March 1997 represents the culmination of this process, and indeed many of its proposals are the same as those mooted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in the early 1990s. However, the government's neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy, which now sets the policy context, has stripped these proposals of their radical content." (jbv)

vol 12 no 3

Neo-liberalizing skills: A critique of the South African Green Paper
Melanie Samson

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
Page 26
"South Africa"



Melanie Samson is with the Education Policy Unit, University of the Witwatersrand.


The restructuring of apartheid era industrial education and training is undeniably one of the key challenges to be addressed in the democratisation and transformation of the South African economy. For almost a decade the democratic movement has, therefore, been developing proposals for a post-apartheid education and training system. The publication of the Green Paper on Skills Development in March 1997 represents the culmination of this process, and indeed many of its proposals are the same as those mooted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in the early 1990s. However, the government's neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), which now sets the policy context, has stripped these proposals of their radical content.

The Green Paper represents yet another example of the ANC's capitulation to neo-liberal restructuring. A careful reading reveals the extent to which the democratic movement's calls for redress and broader economic transformation have been whittled down to narrowly economistic proposals for growth in an "internationally competitive" economy. The reframing of education and training as tools for microeconomic reform is starkly revealed by the full title of the Green Paper, the "Green Paper on a Skills Development Strategy for Economic and Employment Growth in South Africa."

Post-apartheid education

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Cosatu began to explore the possibilities for restructuring education and training in South Africa. Apartheid education had denied the majority of South African workers access to formal education and training. Employer commitment to training was minimal, and what training did exist was narrowly vocational. The majority of black workers were trapped in low-paying, unskilled positions, with the unskilled section of the labour market further divided along gender lines. Moreover, grading and wages were not linked to training, so those workers who did manage to improve their skills were not rewarded appropriately.

In response to these injustices, Cosatu developed a set of proposals for the restructuring of education and training. COSATU proposed the establishment of a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) which would bring together the disparate apartheid education and training systems into one unified, outcomes based system. This system would cover all levels of learning ranging from primary school and adult basic education up to post-doctoral degrees. Under the NQF South Africans would be able to receive accreditation for experience based learning, and move more easily from non-formal education into the formal education system. Linking grading to wage structures through NQF accredited training was central to the Cosatu proposals.

The primary objective of the NQF as proposed by Cosatu was to redress the structural discrimination of apartheid. A 1993 PRP document identifies four main goals of the NQF:

1) to improve the wages of workers and reduce the disparity between low skilled and skilled workers;

2) to create career path opportunities for all workers in all sectors based on skills/training which will enable them to progressively move upwards over their working lifetime;

3) to remove discriminatory practices, built on gender or racial bias by ensuring that fair assessment methods based on skills are used for promoting people and providing access to training;

4) to enable workers to increasingly intervene and take more control of the production process.

The proposals for the NQF were complimentary to Cosatu's economic policy of Growth Through Redistribution, so that redress in the economic sphere would not only eliminate structural discrimination but also boost economic growth by expanding the domestic market.

Thus, social justice concerns were central to the proposed education and training reforms. However, the explicit commitment to redress was undermined by two factors present even in the early debates.

First, redress was not comprehensively theorised. Within the South African labour market the formal sector of the economy is still largely the preserve of black male workers, whereas black women are marginalised within the informal sector. The Cosatu proposals for economic development and transformation did not deal with the informal sector, which made them gender biased as they did not address the working conditions of most black women. Where the Cosatu proposals did make explicit demands for the elimination of gender discrimination they were hindered by the treatment of women as a homogenous category. Workers were either referred to as female or as black. The proposals were therefore incapable of addressing the specific problems of black women workers, and by default catered to the black male workers who already predominated in the formal sector of the economy.

Second, despite an official commitment to growth through redistribution, a line of argument developed simultaneously which stressed a slightly different relationship between the NQF and economic growth. The NQF proposals had been modeled largely on the Australian Vocational Training Programme (AVTP). This programme which had been developed to train "multi-skilled" workers to advance the international competitiveness of the economy, not to promote redress. From a very early stage, therefore, these two distinct discourses around the role of the NQF sat somewhat uneasily.

The Green Paper

The 1995 White Paper on Education and Training and the 1995 South African Qualifications Authority Act made legal provision for the establishment of an NQF. Under the NQF all education and training within South Africa is now meant to be outcomes-based, and to fall under three qualification bands: General Education and Training (which includes Adult Basic Education and Training and formal education up to grade 9), Further Education and Training (which includes high school certificates, as well as those earned through workplaces, Industry Training Boards and Colleges), and Higher Education and Training (which includes diplomas and occupational certificates up to post-doctoral degrees).

The NQF obviously requires fundamental restructuring of the apartheid education and training systems, and separate initiatives are required in each of the former systems to make them compatible with the new policy. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) is slowly beginning to develop policy for the overall development and implementation of the NQF. Within the formal education sector an initiative called Curriculum 2005 has been the main attempt to align educational curriculum with the NQF. The Green Paper is the central effort to develop a comprehensive skills development strategy for the economy within the context of the NQF.

Education for economic competitiveness

The Green Paper makes a series of proposals for new structures and strategies for industrial education and training. It advocates the creation of a Research and Strategic Planning Unit (RSPU) which will collect, analyze and disseminate information on labour market trends and their implications for skills development. This information will be used by, amongst others, the proposed Sectoral Education and Training Organisations (SETOs). The SETOs will identify which skills are needed in their relevant economic sector, and on this basis recommend the creation of "learnerships" in strategic areas.

Learnerships (which will provide workers and potential workers with structured learning and work experience) are the only concrete proposal for the restructuring of industrial education and training contained within the Green Paper. They will be jointly developed by the SETOs and the relevant NQF bodies, and will be accredited within the NQF.

Finally, the Green Paper proposes a levy-grant scheme for training under which companies will pay a payroll levy, 80% of which will go to a Sectoral Skills Fund, and 20% of which will go to a National Skills Fund. Companies will then be able to apply for training grants which will be awarded to training programmes that meet the sectoral needs as defined by the SETOs. Originally a payroll levy of 5% had been proposed, but in present discussions this figure has been lowered to 1.0 - 1.5%.

Redress absent

The fundamental preoccupation of the Green Paper is to reorganise and streamline education and training to promote economic growth. In his forward to the Green Paper the Minister of Labour, Tito Mboweni states that:

"It aims to set in motion a skills revolution in our country and nothing less than a revolution will suffice when one considers the urgent need for employment and productivity growth in our country. This Strategy does not claim the development of skills on its own will achieve these outcomes, but it does argue that skilled people are a fundamentally necessary part of any economic and employment growth strategy, and that re-establishing the linkages between learning and working is a condition for growth."

Linking skills development and economic growth is part of an international trend towards using education and training as tools for micro-economic reform. In an era when most governments (either through self-imposed economic policies such as GEAR or externally imposed structural adjustment programmes) have abandoned to the market almost all tools for economic intervention, the idea of harnessing education and training to the service of growth has become highly seductive. The Green Paper, GEAR, and all recent NQF related documents follow the international trend, promoting multi-skilled workers as the key to competitiveness.

Thus, the Green Paper decisively shifts the arguments for a new education and training system. The focus on economic growth and international competitiveness, which featured only marginally in the Cosatu documents of the early 1990s, is now the main objective of the Green Paper. Moreover, the concept of redress, which was the overriding concern for Cosatu, does not even feature in the Green Paper. While repeated reference is made to the need for "social development," this concept is never defined.

Some would argue that the Green Paper does provide for redress implicitly, by focusing on meeting the needs of "target groups." However, the approach to dealing with the target groups reproduces many of the problems of the early Cosatu work. The target groups include the unemployed, retrenched workers, youth, women, people with disabilities and people in rural areas. The Green Paper provides no historical analysis to explain why and how these specific target groups have been marginalised, and there is no acknowledgment that neo-liberal macro-economic policies will further entrench these structural inequalities in the labour market.

Throughout the document the target groups are homogenized, so the reality of individuals suffering from multiple layers of structural discrimination is not acknowledged. For example, the section outlining the problems in industry based training for the target groups assumes that each target group receives training and education separately. This would seem to assume that all participants in programs for the unemployed, retrenched workers, youth, people with disabilities and people in rural areas are male, while women's training and education needs can be provided for in separate programs for women. The fact that women have been discriminated against in programs for all of the other target groups is not even identified by the authors of the Green Paper.

Despite claims that the Skills Development Strategy will improve the position of the target groups the RSPU is not required to gather statistical information on their position in the labour market. There is therefore a danger that reliable indices of the Skills Development Strategy's success in catering to the most disadvantaged will not be available. Moreover, target groups will continue to be discriminated against in mainstream training programs as programmes need not demonstrate that they are unbiased and cater to the needs of the target groups to receive grants. Unlike the Cosatu documents the Green Paper includes the informal sector in its skills development strategy, and workers and potential workers in the SME sector will be eligible to participate in the learnership programme. However, the Green Paper explicitly states that if the training is to culminate in a nationally recognised qualification, the [relevant] SETO will have to establish that the work experience meets the requirements of the industry and qualification. Moreover, small enterprises will only be eligible to provide the work component of the learnership, if they form groups of training companies which between them are able to provide the range of work experience required.

These conditions will be biased against the SME sector for several reasons. First, the SETOs will establish the requirements of the industry based on what is required to promote the international competitiveness of the sector. As SME producers are more concerned with small scale production and basic survival, their education and training needs will not necessarily fit with the requirements of industry. The likely result will be a mismatch between the learnerships offered to SMEs and the skills they require. Second, even if the types of skills required in the formal and informal sector were similar, the specific skills required may be different. A learnership placement in a formal sector workplace could therefore be inappropriate for someone working in a SME. For example, the training needs of a seamstress in the informal sector are very different from those of a woman working in a factory. Therefore, even though SMEs are nominally included in the Green Paper, no systematic effort is made to address the real development needs of that sector.

Shifting the debate?

GEAR explicitly called for a Skills Development Strategy to promote international competitiveness. The Green Paper responds to this demand by tightly knitting the provision of education and training to meeting the needs of strategic growth sectors of the economy. Although a token gesture is made to including SMEs in the strategy, the primary objective is undeniably to promote growth in the formal sector of the economy. With the Green Paper a decade long process of post-apartheid education and training policy-making has ended on a path very different from that on which it started. Rather than focusing on redress and leveraging radical transformation of the economy, education and training have been transformed to serve international competition.

The Green Paper is still being discussed in National Economic Development and Labour Council, and therefore there is some opportunity for Labour and the Community Constituency to object to its present formulation. However, the Skills Development Strategy is more about a development path for South Africa than it is about skills. With the ANC announcement that GEAR provides a non-negotiable framework for development, it seems doubtful that Labour and the Community Constituency will have much success in shifting the debate about education and training back on track.

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Printable Version

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