Southern Exodus

South Africa 

The Irish Times
March 10, 2008

By Mary McCarthy

Pretoria , SOUTH AFRICA: Tourists are flocking to South Africa, so why are so many south africans emigrating? 

The South African media is full of ‘brain drain’ reports, with many linking emigration to a current skills shortage, and adverse effects on future economic well-being forecast.

South Africa’s unusual history has given it a global legacy with an estimated two million of its population living and working abroad.  

The country was a major importer of skills in the apartheid era, but emigration accelerated after democracy in 1994. One million South Africans are estimated to be living in Britain alone.

Recent political and economic events have renewed alarmist media references to the numbers leaving. While anecdotal evidence suggests emigration is on the increase, there are no exact figures.  

Marius Roodt, researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations (SARR), says the government has stopped publishing emigration numbers – those departing are no longer required to complete forms – but the Institute analysed official figures, and found that the white population had shrunk by about 850,000 between 1996 and 2005, the bulk of these presumably being "affluent and educated."

He says reports indicate that some black professionals are also leaving but probably not on the same scale as whites.  

There is evidence the official numbers are a serious undercount – by as much as a factor of four – as data includes only those who declare themselves as migrants.Many have dual citizenship or have adopted citizenship of their new home country, and those spending gap years in another Commonwealth country need not register.

Martine Schaffer, MD of the Homecoming Revolution, a non-profit outfit helping South Africans living abroad to come back, says after decades of emigration there could be up to three million living abroad.  

One relocation company says it has seen a 50 per cent increase in business over the last three months, with the top three destinations being Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

"Last year, for every one container leaving the country there was one coming in, but now there are three leaving," Ian Petty of Crown Relocation says.

With tourists raving about the country – and there is a lot to rave about – why are young professionals leaving?  

In 2004, a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) listed the reasons as: crime, affirmative action – with the perception that, with equal skills, young, white males are penalised – a deteriorating education system, perceived fragility about the economy, and uncertainties about the future.

From the media reports today the push factors remain the same, with crime especially being cited. According to the latest statistics, murders dropped 5.7 percent to 8,925 from April to September 2007, but that is still over 50 a day. Also, there is some political uncertainty with Jacob Zuma taking over from SA’s current president Thaobo Mbeki as ANC president – solidifying the long running divide within the party between the ruling elite and the left.

Zuma has offered assurances of continuity in economic policy, but has yet to reveal his own policy preferences – beyond asserting the state’s duty to assuage poverty and favouring free universal education.  

Corruption is also perceived as a problem with Police commissioner Jackie Selebi and even Zuma the latest to face potential criminal charges.

Mike Davies, analyst with the Eurasia Group, says the combination of political uncertainty, power shortages and high crime levels are major factors leading to negative sentiment in some quarters and decreasing business confidence. However, he argues that the issue is often over-simplified.  

"Whereas the motive for people leaving is almost always attributed to political issues, South Africans emigrate for a very diverse spectrum of reasons, as do people in any country. The fact that many return to South Africa is also ignored."

Michael Van Der Merwe (33) moved to London six years ago and works with an international software company. He says many of his friends have emigrated, though he is thinking of moving back home.  

"My friends have emigrated for different reasons, most to offer a secure environment and good, affordable education to their children, others as a direct result of crime in South Africa," he says.

Rob Westen (31) a South African working as a DJ in Dubai, says South Africans are deciding to emigrate in search of job stability where race is not an issue and the prospects of a financial future where the rule of law is more prominent than correcting the wrongs of the past.  

Marius Khoury, MD of recruitment firm Premier Personnel, says that until recently more attractive employment opportunities abroad were the major deciding factor but that increasingly social problems are encouraging people to leave.

"There is a lot of talk around the dinner tables these days on the future for young people in South Africa," he says.  

Contrary to reports that affirmative action policies in recruitment are a big push factor, he believes that AA is not a good excuse for increasing emigration.

"Quality staff with the appropriate skills are never turned away because of their skin colour, more so in an economy where skills shortage is far reaching," he says.  

He concedes that there is a "fairly acute" shortage across the board for any skilled labour in South Africa, and the long-term solution would be to increase spending in education, emphasising science, technology and artisanship.

Analysts believe the skills shortage, exasperated by emigration, is a major obstacle to growth.  

"People from all walks of life are deciding to uproot and go elsewhere. Every 30,000 highly skilled individuals who make this step probably reduce SA’s GDP (gross domestic product) by 1 per cent or more, starving it of critical support, thereby undermining ongoing employment of double their number," says Cees Bruggemans, First National Bank chief economist.

He says this is only an estimate, considering that GDP is estimated to be contributed 10 per cent by the informal sector, but, given the profile of those who emigrate and the tightness of the labour market, it is reasonably based.  

Dr Azar Jammine, economist at South African consultancy Econometrix, says the country is facing a "massive" skills shortage, not only due to emigration but also because the education system is not producing enough people to fill skilled positions. "The skills shortage is the single biggest constraint to attaining faster than 4 per cent growth. This year the growth rate is likely to be between 3-3.5 per cent , instead of the 4.5 per cent that the country has been seeing."

He says the important point about emigration of skills is not that it necessarily impacts so negatively on economic growth in the short term, but that it will limit the economy’s ability to raise its growth rate in the longer term. "It is not just a case of there being fewer people to perform the skilled jobs, but as importantly, the fact that there will be fewer skilled persons available to transfer their skills to those in need of training."  

Tessa Supra, manager of global employer services at consultancy firm Deloitte, says South Africa is experiencing a shortage in the areas of engineering and planning, mining, technology, education, health and artisan skills. The country’s lack of relevant skills also contributes to unemployment – which is 25.5 per cent, but rockets up to 39 per cent if those no longer looking for long-term employment are included.

The skills mismatch is also exacerbated by the difficulty in obtaining work permits for foreigners and, although the government has revised policy to encourage skilled migrants through the issuing of work permits for scarce skills, red tape and poor communication with industry have resulted in a slow uptake.  

The government’s Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA) and its Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) are aimed at addressing the constraint of shortage, but it will take some years for these plans to bear fruit.

Tessa Supra says it will take years to sort out the problem, and although it is commendable the government have plans in place, whether they are executed properly is another matter.  

A recent report from the South African Institute of Race Relations says the government has to make itself more attractive to foreign workers, and should work on improving South Africa’s image abroad.

To address the skills shortage it recommends the government liberalise immigration laws and give this responsibility over to an independent State agency and it suggests that the SETA educational system be improved or replaced.  

Media reports might be focused on those who leave, but the fact is that many work abroad for a few years and return.

The Homecoming Revolution, which holds events in the UK and Dubai to attract skills with over 30 of South Africa’s top companies, says many who depart do not intend to stay away permanently.

 "Our figures are up 20 percent on what they were this time last year," says MD Martine Schaffer. "We know of thousands of people that have returned, although there are no statistics."

However, she says South Africa is not aggressive enough in trying to attract skilled foreigners or entice South Africans home.  

Pieter Meiring (31) has just moved back to South Africa after living in Brighton for ten years working in IT and marketing. He says the country has come so far in a lot of ways, with Johannesburg especially being more integrated.

Although he says that, despite the emergence of a new black middle class, inequality seems to have gotten worse. People must realise that a huge barrier has to be crossed.  

"People need to work on integrating more socially. They should get involved instead of just criticising," he says.




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