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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Input to ETDP SETA by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary, COSATU

14 September 2006

Dear comrades and friends,

Thank you for this opportunity to address the ETDP SETA. The skills development system, spearheaded by the SETAs, is particularly important for the labour movement. Indeed, it largely exists because of demands developed by unions, especially the metalworkers, during the hard years of apartheid.

SETAs have been around now long enough to review their effects on workers, the unemployed and the economy. While we recognise a host of important achievements, we have to admit that they have not lived up to many of our core expectations.

To understand our concerns, we have to start by asking what we hoped for from the SETAs. That, in turn, means we have to look at the way education and training were deformed under apartheid to contribute to the impoverishment and disempowerment of our people.

At the heart of apartheid lay the deprivation of formal education and skills for the majority of our people. Even for educators, as you may remember, the four-year colleges were largely closed to black people. That, in turn, meant lower pay.

As a result, many workers learned their skills on the job, informally, and never got a certificate. We all remember the stories about “spanner boys” or even something they used to call “pikinini” who did all the work, no matter how skilled, but were still classed as elementary workers because they did not have formal qualifications. This system meant workers could never get a promotion or find new employment, because their competencies were never recognised.

With the transition to democracy, the labour movement worked with the democratic movement as a whole to try to overcome the divisions and unfairness left in the education and training system. But we still have far to go.

In education, we continue to see huge inequalities, based now on class rather than formerly on race. Of course, because most of the upper class is still white, the results are that racial differences pervade the education system. In 2003, just over half of white learners got a matric exemption, but only a tenth of Africans. Not surprisingly, our universities are still about half white. And about three quarters of management in the private sector is still white.

In skills development, the main aims were to improve qualifications for black workers, so that they could improve their career chances and productivity. The key instruments to achieve this aim were recognition of prior learning; increased resourcing through the skills levy; and the SETAs, to ensure training responded to real sectoral needs, rather than just becoming a paper chase where workers get irrelevant and useless qualifications.

Finally, we wanted to ensure that every South African is literate. Estimates of illiteracy range widely, but it seems probably that around one in six South Africans – mostly rural and older – remains illiterate. If we do not ensure that people have access to basic literacy and numeracy, they cannot take their rightful place in society either as citizens or as workers. They will remain marginalised, at a huge personal and social cost.

Can we say we have succeeded in our efforts to transform the training system? Despite all our work and accomplishments, we have very far to go.

A major concern remains that the systems for recognising prior learning are still not in place in most cases. The result is that workers continue to suffer historic injustice. Where the systems do exist, they often require so much theoretical work that ordinary workers can’t afford to get the qualifications anyway.

A second concern is that we have not seen an increase in access to training for most workers. According to the Labour Force Survey, white men are still more likely to get training than black workers, especially in lower skill levels. Elementary workers have almost no access to training at all. Moreover, the skills levy in South Africa is still low compared to more successful countries in Asia. Yet a lot of it remains unspent.

That is a major cause for concern.

Part of this problem is that we have not tacked illiteracy in a systematic way. We have not rolled out ABET to all who need it.

We know some of the reasons for the problems facing the skills development system. To start with, the skills planning process in most companies remains firmly in the hands of management. We have not adequately empowered workers and shop stewards to develop demands and fight for them. Moreover, in most companies, workers can’t get paid time off for training. They have to take courses on weekends and at night, which is difficult particularly for people with families.

We can’t say the SETAs are blameless. Too often, the extensive planning requirements have become in themselves a roadblock to progress. We need to focus more on getting training to people, and less on setting up bureaucratic systems and getting endless consultants’ reports.

Finally, we have not linked skills development strongly enough to employment equity. In many companies, there are separate committees to deal with each. Yet one of the main aims of skills development, from a workers’ point of view, is to make it possible to progress in one’s career.

In response to these challenges, the government has pushed learnerships, particularly to involve unemployed people, and asked that labour and business improve their representation on SETA boards.

But those strategies do not address the core problem, which is the failure to ensure that ordinary workers have a voice in defining skill needs and plans. That is what we as unions must do much more consistently. After all, the skills development programme reflects our demands – now we have to make it work. We cannot afford to discuss skills anymore in this strange language that no one understands, that disempowers ordinary workers. Rather, we have to empower workers and their shop stewards to identify what they want from skills plans and negotiate for it.

Where does the unemployment crisis fit into all of this? Obviously, unemployment is a major concern for all of us. But it does not arise primarily because of low skills and education. The average unemployed youth – and young people make up two thirds of the unemployed - has 11 years of formal education. That is far more than in most developing countries, which have much lower unemployment.

To continually blame unemployment on poor education and skills essentially blames the victim. It plays into the racist belief that black people are too uneducated to function in the formal economy. This is obviously nonsense.

The fact is that unemployment is high because the economy is not creating jobs. That, in turn, reflects low levels of investment and the emphasis on capital-intensive industries like metals, auto and heavy chemicals. It reflects highly concentrated ownership that prevents growth in other sectors. And not least, it reflects the downsizing in the public service. Unless we address these challenges, no amount of skills development will lead to job creation.

This does not mean that improved education and training won’t help the economy grow, and on that basis support higher job creation. As we have said repeatedly, we insist on ABET for all those who need it. Education and skills development will address unemployment best by meeting the needs of the economy for skills – both better education for most, and a few high-level technical and management skills.

It follows that the main way the ETDP SETA can help address unemployment is to ensure that every educator has the training they need to meet the challenges faced by the education system. COSATU and SADTU have long argued that educators need massive in-service training to deal with the new curriculum and teaching methods. We need to vastly expanding maths and science teaching. How can the SETA help address these problems?

Comrades and friends,

Clearly it is very difficult to reshape the education and training system after so many decades of racist oppression. And we cannot do it through technical elite processes. Rather, we need to find ways to empower shop stewards, organisers and workers – in your case, the educators – to identify what skills they want and how they can best get them.

Serious ABET must go hand in glove with other forms of skills training and empowerment programmes for the unemployed. There is a danger that a great army of our people may be condemned to lives of poverty and unemployment till they are become victims of HIV and other diseases. SETAs must as part of the programme be asked how they reach out to the unemployed.

Our people need to helped and be trained not only through the expanded public works programme but a range of other interventions. These may include on how to organise themselves into coops movements, how could they avoid being in the books of omashonisa, opening of small business without misleading them into believing that all people will be successful business man or women.

We need to return to the basics of the skills development system: recognition of prior learning and a huge increase in access to training for ordinary workers, including ABET. We will beat unemployment, not by using the training system to create artificial positions, but by through a vigorous development strategy supported by a much stronger education and training system.