STRONG TIES: Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz and President Jacob Zuma share a light moment with a young girl as they commemorate Cuban independence heroes in Havana in 2010. Picture: GCIS

SA's public service is increasingly viewing Cuba as a good training ground to expand the pool of its professional expertise.

Cuba, despite having a far smaller economy than SA, has succeeded in positioning itself as an educational and training provider of choice for African states.

SA's interest is partly informed by the government's desire to improve SA's competitiveness and productivity by investing in capacity development projects.

Rural development, quality education and healthcare are among the sectors it has targeted as vital to SA's competitiveness.

The push for training has seen SA establish relations with other countries, such as Turkey, Serbia and the Czech Republic, that have offered to host South Africans.

With a limited number of qualified professionals in the prioritised sectors, SA hopes the country-to-country agreements will reduce the skills deficit in the public sector as more countries are willing to offer training opportunities.

A damning report released last week by the auditor-general lamented the skills deficit in national and provincial departments as one of the major causes of "unauthorised, irregular as well as fruitless and wasteful expenditure" estimated at more than R26bn.

The public sector is also competing with private companies to attract or retain skilled personnel.

The government is hoping to change this picture by concluding lock-in agreements with other countries for training opportunities for career civil servants.

Foremost among these is Cuba, which has enjoyed decades of fraternal relations with SA's ruling African National Congress.

Two weeks ago the Department of Defence and Military Veterans became the latest to sign a joint co-operation agreement with Cuba.

Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the agreement would focus on training and exchange programmes between the countries' military veterans, military health and defence industries.

"We must therefore through this agreement heighten our exchanges in all these fields to ensure that we gain the much-needed expertise from your experience over the years," she said.

Ulises Rosales del Toro, vice-president of Cuba's Council of Ministers, said SA could benefit from Cuba's work ethic and discipline to improve the government's record on service delivery.

The agreement has resulted in SA's security and justice clusters, specifically the departments of home affairs and defence, benefiting from training programmes facilitated by Cuban authorities.

Last month, 30 Cuban immigration officials led a three-month course on immigration control techniques for 350 defence force personnel for deployment at OR Tambo International, Africa's busiest airport. The defence force personnel at the airport have now been transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of Home Affairs as officers tasked with protecting a key national port of entry.

Through generous annual scholarships, Cuba has been able to provide medical training to hundreds of students from 48 countries on the continent.

With plans to establish a national health insurance scheme, it goes without saying that SA will need more graduates in the field of medicine.

In a gesture of goodwill in 2009, President Jacob Zuma wrote off debt of R1bn Cuba owed to "strengthen trade and investment relations". During a state visit to Havana in 2010, he extended a credit line of R70m and offered an additional R100 m from the African Renaissance Fund for purchases from SA. At least R40m was donated to Cuban agriculture for reconstructive efforts after a hurricane in 2008.

SA and Cuba have also signed agreements to co-operate in the fields of health, labour, trade promotion and investment protection. SA has contracted 20 Cuban doctors to offer medical services to Sierra Leone.

The R24m project was facilitated through the African Renaissance Fund, SA's flagship aid assistance programme managed by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.