The NQF traces its origins back to the labour movement of the early 1970s. From the early 1970s, black trade union demands for a living wage were repeatedly rejected by employers, on the grounds that workers were unskilled and therefore their demands were unjustified. This in turn led to black workers seeing training as a means to achieving their demands for better wages. The struggle to persuade employers to accede to worker demands continued into the 1980s and in 1989 the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), established a research group comprising workers and union officials, to formulate recommendations on training. On the assumption that skills development would lead to better wages, an integrated proposal was formulated, based on a staged improvement in skills, linked to grading increments. The proposal stressed the need not only for basic education, without which workers would not be able to access the proposed system, but also for portability and national recognition of training so that workers would not be at the mercy of a single employer. The proposal was formally adopted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in July 1991.
The mid-1970s also witnessed a demand for change in education, spearheaded by the non-governmental education sector. Protest was epitomised in the Soweto student uprising of 1976, which was followed by nation-wide student protest. By the 1980s the entire education system had been discredited and rejected. Non-governmental education sector resistance resulted eventually in the formation of the National Education Policy Initiative (NEPI), which set about developing proposals for the restructuring of the formal education system. Drawing on discussions with a wide range of interested parties within the democratic alliance, the NEPI reports and framework, published in 1992, were premised upon the principles of non-racism, non-sexism, democracy and redress, and the need for a non-racial unitary system of education and training. COSATU was closely involved with the NEPI process – an alliance which continued through the period leading to the democratic elections of 1994.
Despite repeated resistance to worker and student demands for change, the government of the day came increasingly to appreciate the inappropriateness, and ultimately the unsustainability, of its rejection of such demands. The announcement by President de Klerk in 1990 of the government’s intention to dismantle apartheid gave added impetus to, and was symptomatic of, the change of policy towards worker and student demands. The Department of Manpower, through the National Training Board (NTB), embarked as far back as the 1980s upon a number of initiatives, notably the restructuring of the apprenticeship system into a competency-based modular training system run by autonomous industry training boards. However unions viewed the process as flawed, not only because it excluded workers, but also because the proposals emanating from the initiatives were narrowly focussed on apprenticeship to the exclusion of basic education, which was seen as a point of access to the skills training. After an extended conflictual relationship, the Department of Manpower and the trade union federations reconvened in 1992 in an attempt to renew the process.
The Department of Education simultaneously initiated its own process of policy discussion, which culminated in the Education Renewal Strategy (ERS). The democratic alliance within the education sector was invited to participate in the process, but declined the invitation on the grounds that the initiative lacked legitimacy. Furthermore the ERS advocated three streams – academic, vocational, and vocationally-oriented – a system the democratic alliance found unpalatable. The education employer sector did, however, participate in the process, advocating a seamless framework similar to that adopted by Scotland and New Zealand.
The 1992 meeting of the Department of Manpower and the trade union federations resulted in the formation of a representative Task Team, which established eight working groups charged with developing a new national training strategy. The working groups had representation from trade unions, employers, the State, providers of education and training, the ANC Education Department, and the democratic alliance. Working Group 2 reached agreement on a new integrated framework. 1994 saw the publication of three documents which laid the foundation for the SAQA Act (RSA, 1995): the ANC Policy Framework for Education and Training (1994); the Discussion Document on a National Training Strategy Initiative (1994); and the CEPD Implementation Plan for Education and Training (1994). White papers on Education and Training (1995) and on Reconstruction and Development (1994) followed, both of which underscored the need for the development and implementation of the NQF.
An Inter-Ministerial Working Group was established to draft the NQF Bill which was passed into law as the South African Qualifications Authority Act (No. 58 of 1995) on 4 October 1995. The appointments to the first Authority were made in May 1996 and the first meeting of the Authority under the chairmanship of Mr S B A Isaacs, was held in August 1996.