South Africa plans new measures to lure its overseas academics and skilled workers back home as the country seeks to tackle a skills gap that threatens economic development, a government minister said on Tuesday.

An economic giant on the African continent, South Africa nevertheless faces massive skills shortages in critical areas, including nursing, teaching and engineering.

Many skilled South Africans, both white and black, have left the country in recent years for reasons ranging from fears of high crime to new policies aimed at boosting black participation in the economy that often block white job applicants.

The skills shortage is seen as a major stumbling block to faster economic expansion.

At a news briefing at Parliament on Tuesday, Education Minister Naledi Pandor said the government continued to try attract South Africans living and working abroad back home as well as to improve local education.

"It's something that I believe we also need to attend to in education, but I think we must do it in a flexible and pragmatic way," said Pandor during a briefing on South Africa's skills development strategy.

Pandor said she intended to implement a system that would enable local universities to bring home South African academics working abroad to jumpstart local research programmes.

She said the government would put additional funds into research and upgrade laboratories on campuses to provide returning researchers with world-class facilities.

"We're already talking to academics about this -- running seminars in South Africa, six-month lecturing to post-graduate students. So you begin then to expand your intellectual pool," she said.

The government is also attempting to lure back retired engineers and other professionals.

South Africa's skills shortage is already hitting the government's multibillion-rand infrastructure development strategy, including the building of stadiums for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
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