Just as in the UK, those working in it rightly regard South African FET as the "Cinderella service". Government's commitment to an expanded and modernised (and modernising) role for the sector is ambitious, but this country is faced with so many competing demands on the public purse that FET cannot realistically expect, in the short term, the cash injection it needs to deliver its mission to increase access to education and raise skills to globally competitive levels.
The decision of the Business Trust (a sort of South African CBI) to inject 100million Rand (pound;10m) of development money to support capacity building in the sector is therefore of critical importance.
It is an initiative that catapults South Africa to the forefront of PPP initiatives in further education and skills training globally. This sum may be regarded as small beer in the UK context, but it has a high impact in South Africa.
To put this figure into perspective, it is equivalent to the total annual FET budget for the Western Cape, one of the better-resourced regional governments.
In truth, the South African government has embarked on an enterprise of massive significance.
The school system is currently showing the strains of huge expansion in numbers, and recent results leave more to be desired than is healthy in an emerging democracy. Currently, only 10 per cent of school-leavers find formal employment, with a further 10 per cent going on to higher education. The rest annually swell the army of unemployed, and that will have an inexorably deleterious impact on crime rates and social exclusion. Among adults, the story is, if anything, even more pressing - ther is a desperate need for a national Basic Skills drive to at least start the process of eroding the difference in the life expectations of the Black majority. The stakes are high, and failure cannot be countenanced, otherwise the country might slip into the nightmare scenario that characterises the former Soviet Union.
Government has, in response to this challenge, provided an ambitious policy framework for its reforms, but its chances of success would have been greatly reduced without the partnership it has established with the business community.
In response, the government has embarked on a twin-track strategy of education reform and a Skills Development strategy, but has not yet combined the two government functions. What is missing is hard cash, and that is where this unique partnership bridges the gap.
In setting up the Colleges Collaboration Fund, the Business Trust's flagship initiative, South African industry is truly breaking new ground, and it is an endeavour that deserves to succeed. Government has, through the Skills Development Act, required employers to pay a training levy of 0.5 per cent of payroll, rising to 1 per cent next year. It remains to be seen how successful this will be, but in any event this is over and above the monies that business is investing voluntarily in the country's future.
Success will now depend on the political will to drive the necessary changes through before the moment is lost.
Returning to incongruities, we in Europe have become accustomed to witnessing catastrophes from a distance, and usually the British people respond quickly and generously, donating large sums of money for disaster relief. The recent Mozambican flooding was different, in that the first country to respond with practical assistance was South Africa. This was heartening in itself, but an accompanying irony was the sight of South African soldiers in the capacity of saviours, when only a few short years ago they were there with a more sinister
purpose. This consequence of a natural disaster shows how far South Africa has come in the six years since democracy was installed. It also signals that this century may well, with a fair wind, in President Thabo Mbeki's words, witness an "African Renaissance".
Robin Landman is an education consultant and a former college manager