He stated that it was a misconception of "some xenophobic compatriots" arguing that immigrants steal jobs, and that they really "assisted the domestic economy to create decent work opportunities for South Africans".
However, in a speech delivered to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of South Africa, Zuma stressed that the country needed to invest in skills development if the economy was to remain competitive.
"That is why the ANC will prioritise skills and education development over the next five years," he said, adding that this should not only be a government imperative, but that employers ought to "play a leading role in this effort".
About one-fifth of citizens in the country were unemployed, which accentuated the urgent need to close the gaping skills gap in the South Africa in the push to boost job rates.
"Employers need to strengthen their mentorship programmes and provide more learnership opportunities," said Zuma. "We must clearly improve our performance in maths, science and technology."
ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa highlighted this point on Tuesday, saying that 80% of maths teachers in South Africa came from Zimbabwe.
Other areas that Zuma said needed attention included knowledge production, innovation and research, as well as entrepreneurial, business and financial skills.
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Compounding the skills conundrum was the steady stream of brains getting on airplanes not to return. Zuma conceded that this could not be stopped, but stressed that it should not put the country off training.
"We must also accept the fact that being a free country, our skilled young people will inevitably seek greener pastures abroad in other countries and we cannot stop them," he stated.
"That should not deter us from the responsibility of training more and more people each year to build our skills base."
Chamber of Mines president and JSE-listed mining company Exxaro CEO Sipho Nkosi last month declared the skills issue “a national crisis”.
“We pay people, we develop them and they go. This is real. It’s facing us as a country and we need to deal with it,” Nkosi said on April 11.
Emigration agencies have been quoted saying that there has been an accelerated flight of workers from South Africa this year, after the power crisis struck in January, combined with worries over economic instability following the change of the ANC's leadership at the Polokwane conference, in December 2007.
Meanwhile, Zuma said that the ANC saw value in reviving the role of State-owned enterprises in skills development and training.
"We must build partnerships between the State, parastatals, the unions and the private sector in the quest to improve skills," he stated.
Construction and engineering firm Group Five said only last week that it had approval for 1 500 work permits to bring skilled foreign nationals into South Africa.
Other big industry names that had cast their eyes beyond our borders to source skills included JSE-listed petroleum and petrochemicals giant Sasol, and cement group Lafarge.
Edited by: Mariaan Webb
Creamer Media Senior Researcher and Deputy Editor Online
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