Critical Skills : A Documentary

Critical Skills : A Documentary

South Africa is losing out on the skills of refugees living in the country. Critical Skills, our new documentary released on Labour Day 2021, looks at the struggles that skilled refugees face in order to practice in South Africa. Complex requirements result in doctors and vets working as trench-diggers and meat-packers. The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town is advocating for improved systems to recognize skilled refugees, thus allowing them to practice and the South African economy to benefit from their qualifications.

Critical Skills follows Dr Ntumba, a veterinary doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who specializes in agropastoralism, and Dr Futu, a medical doctor also from DRC, who managed a hospital in the conflict-ridden Eastern provinces of Congo providing care to victims of war. Both Dr Ntumba and Dr Futu left DRC due to political instability.

Simply unable to get their skills recognised in South Africa, Dr Ntumba works packing meat in a supermarket and Dr Futu finds small jobs such as trench-digging. ‘Emotionally, you feel diminished,’ explains Dr Ntumba. ‘Without practicing, I will lose my skills. South Africa is actually losing … they should have used me.’

Paper battles in South Africa

The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) is the sole authority to recognize foreign qualifications in South Africa. Dr Julie Reddy, acting CEO of SAQA, and Mr Navin Vasudev, Deputy Director, who feature in the documentary, evaluate foreign qualifications against the South African National Qualifications Framework. Yearly, SAQA evaluates around 25,000 foreign qualifications.

Applicants to this SAQA process require a host of documents – including every original transcript of each year passed at college or university. For refugees who have fled their countries due to war or persecution, having all these documents is very difficult. Universities in certain areas (especially those affected by conflict) may have shut down, barring SAQA’s ability to verify information.

A pilot project: evaluation of incomplete documentation of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa

In response to refugees and asylum seekers’ lack of original documents, SAQA has been working on alternative ways to recognise asylum and refugee applicants. This culminated in SAQA drawing up an addendum that allows for a special dispensation to recognise qualifications of refugees and asylum seekers. SAQA ran a pilot project in November 2019 to allow for alternative means of verifying and evaluating qualifications whilst allowing for stringent checks.

Professional councils: the next hurdle

If SAQA recognition is achieved, another hurdle is faced by foreign applicants: registration with a relevant professional council. This is a cumbersome and expensive process – sitting the South African Veterinary Council exam, for example, costs around 34 000 ZAR. On top of this, most professional bodies only accept refugee documentation, and not asylum seeker documentation. (A recent report found that 60% of asylum respondents’ adjudications took over five years – so many asylum-seekers spend considerable lengths of time on asylum documentation.)

Three ideas for South African authorities

Hylton Bergh, Employment Access Manager at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, works to ensure asylum seeker, refugee and migrant clients are able to practice their skills in South Africa. In the documentary, he explains three changes that could ensure an improved process for the employment of qualified refugees in South Africa:

Professional councils need to be made aware of the circumstances of foreign nationals and their value, both monetary and intellectual, to the various professional sectors – which includes allowing asylum seekers to register with professional bodies.

The South African government could reconsider BBBEE policies, especially as it relates to the Critical Skills List, because refugees from elsewhere in Africa currently do not contribute to BBBEE points.

South African industries could advocate for changes to the above policies because the more skilled our work force the better the economic growth for our country.


Hylton Bergh

Employment Access Manager

Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

Navin Vasudev

Deputy Director-Verification Foreign Qualifications Evaluation and Advisory Services

South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)

Lotte Manicom

Advocacy Communications Manager

Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town