Human Resource Development Strategies and Structure in South Africa: Planning, Plumbing, or Posing?

By Stephanie Allais, University of the Witwatersrand.

SA.flagGovernments who are attempting to develop education policies and systems that meet the needs of their economy are constantly exhorted to ensure that different aspects of policy ‘join-up’ with others. Having a national ‘peak structure’ constituted by ministers, senior labour representatives, and senior people from industry and business which meets regularly to discuss human resource development policy should be a good way of achieving such coordination, and the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report praises South Africa for its various policies and systems aimed at developing the skills of its young people. Why then, does the South African Human Resource Development Council seem to have achieved so little to date? Two colleagues and I reviewed various primary sources and ‘grey literature’ surrounding the Council, and drew on our personal experiences and reflections working in and participating in the structures and processes analysed, in an attempt to understand this situation. Our analysis suggests that human resource development in South Africa has been, and continues to be, more a matter of posturing than planning. The first Human Resource Development Strategy released in South Africa in 2001 can be described as posturing because it said much about what needed to be done, and contained many noble aims and intentions, but had no implementation structure attached, had no way of coordinating its work across government, and is generally acknowledged to have been a complete failure.

For a brief period some success was experienced in terms of ‘plumbing’—or solving specific problems and achieving specific gains in terms of producing appropriately skilled people in identified areas. This was through an intervention to address perceived skills shortages, known as the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA), which took place in between the failed First Strategy and the new Strategy which is now in place. JIPSA was widely seen as very successful at bringing together high-level stakeholders to focus on solving key problems in the skills development ‘pipeline’, and was sometimes referred to by the individuals involved as a successful ‘plumbing’ process.

The second Human Resource Development Strategy, released in 2010, attempted to build on the successes of JIPSA, and address the criticisms of the first Strategy. A Human Resource Development Council led by the Deputy President and consisting of representation of many key Cabinet Ministers and ‘captains of industry’ as well as senior labour representatives was created to oversee the coordination of the Strategy, which is coupled with a National Integrated Human Resource Development Plan. However, this Strategy, even with the associated plan, is also closer to posturing than planning. It has almost no concrete achievements to date.

The Council meets a few times a year, for official meetings as well as workshops, filling a large room with heavyweight individuals for one or two days. It is supported by a small but growing office of permanent staff. The bulk of its actual work is supposed to be carried out through ad hoc and temporary Technical Task Teams, which get created in order to identify solutions to problems in specific areas. But instead of being ‘nimble’ extra-bureaucratic mechanisms which can get things done, they seem to be an additional bureaucratic mechanism, or a mechanism which reinvents the work of the bureaucracy, without being aligned to the existing bureaucratic mechanisms.

In short, the Human Resource Development Council is a coordinating mechanism, which tries to make the different parts of the system talk to each other, but without actual mechanisms either to create integration or to hold the different parts of the system to account, and with poorly conceived structures and systems. This leaves it as not much more than a very high-level and widely supported talk shop. The Strategy which the Council is supposed to oversee is an unwieldy and unfocused list of targets which was developed based on the work of all government departments, but without a clear sense of priority.

The problem is not just poorly conceptualized national human resource development structures and processes, although there are many institutional and bureaucratic problems with the Council. Starting from the idea of humans as essential resources which need to be developed, and moving to the idea that policy needs to ‘join-up’ leads to an obsession with getting everyone talking together, but no clarity on what they should be talking about, and whose economic, political, and ideological interests are underpinning whatever it is that they are cooperating to do.

Getting senior people who represent different important constituencies together to talk about human resource development is not a useful thing to do, because national human resource development is so broad and an unwieldy a concept. And recent literature and UN resolutions seem to aggravate this by equating human resource development with human development. The logic is, on one level, sound—if people are to contribute in the economy they not only need the appropriate skills, but also to be healthy, housed, and so on. But this is very unhelpful in enabling governments to choose policies to focus on. It also creates the impression that developing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of people is the starting point of social and economic development, which leads to a lack of policy focus on the social, economic, and political changes that are needed to sustain social and economic development as well as skills formation. At the same time it implies that giving people skills is something that should primarily be done for the good of the economy, which leads to a distortion of education systems as they become narrowly and inappropriately focused on the world of work. The equation of human resource development with human development leads to the further distortion that people should only be healthy and housed because they can then better contribute to the economy.

Skill formation systems have typically been effective in late developing states when accompanying effective industrialization drives—something South Africa has yet to achieve. Rising levels of prosperity lead to increased levels of educational achievement, and increased demand for education, and motivation to succeed in education. Skill formation systems are embedded in various complex relationships in any given society, including political and economic policy and power relations, collective bargaining arrangements, industrial relations, and industrial strategy. Better understandings of the specifics of these relationships, and what needs to change if skill formation systems are to improve, is what is sorely lacking, particularly in the developing world. Without such insights, it is easy to understand why the Human Resource Development Council seems unable to achieve its mission.

Stephanie Allais is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The research on which this piece draws was conducted with Carmel Marock and Siphelo Ngcwangu from the REAL Centre. Email:

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