The announcement from Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene that officials must beef up on qualifications is a step in the right direction.
However, qualifications alone will not solve the high levels of skills shortages experienced in the state departments.
In 2007, some officials were given an eight-year window in which to obtain qualifications.
That window expired in 2015 and one must ask how many officials are indeed better qualified compared to their qualification status 11 years ago.
Demanding that officials must now have a qualification after 18 months, begs the question on what sort of qualifications the minister has in mind.
The minister’s 18-month demand could have different implications for different officials.
• There could be officials who already have a qualification and who need to upskill because his/her current qualification is not adequate for the current role.
• There could be officials who already have a qualification that is completely irrelevant to the current role. In such a case a new qualification must be achieved in 18 months
• There could be officials who have no qualification whatsoever and who need a first qualification in 18 months. For this group, a national diploma at level six may be out of reach within an 18-month window. Level six national diplomas take at least three years to complete, so a lower level qualification would have to be completed in the time frame envisioned by Nene.
Another question to ask is whether 18 months is adequate time for officials without qualifications and who are doing a job that requires a degree as a minimum competency.
Third, if officials still do not have qualifications after the last eight-year window has expired, is it not a signal to the government that so such officials are dead wood and have no place in any department?
While qualifications are necessary, one must question some of the state’s employment policies – especially as those policies could have a negative impact on some sections of previously disadvantaged groups.
There are vacancies that existed for years and that are not yet filled because of dogmatic adherence to policy views that only a specific group of previously disadvantaged persons is suitable for that vacancy.
Would the government be willing to fill vacancies with competent people from other disadvantaged groups to improve the skills situation, or will a blind adherence to policies aggravate skills shortages in such a way that the status quo still prevails five years from now?
Dealing with a legacy in which appointments were made out of patronage and not merit is very difficult to change.
The government stands in front of a big courage test.
It has to make a choice between relaxing draconic employment policies or perpetuating the skills shortage by demanding results that previous windows of opportunity did not achieve.
• Peter van Nieuwenhuizen is chief financial officer of the Growth Institute, a private college offering a range of commercial, tourism and hotel management programmes.