Emigration is a perennial topic among middle-class South Africans, and in the last few years it seems more people (of all races) have been considering making their way abroad.

The continued migration of South Africans abroad has not escaped the notice of the Department of Employment and Labour. In a crowded field, it is a standout performer when it comes to government departments which hamper South African development and are more of a hindrance than a help.

New policy

Nevertheless, the department led by Thulas Nxesi (of ‘firepool’ fame) has released its latest draft National Migration Policy for South Africa. Perhaps one of its more eyebrow-raising proposals is the suggestion that some sort of cap or quota should be implemented on the number of foreigners that can be employed in certain sectors. This is clearly a sop to the continued growing anti-foreigner sentiment and a reaction to the performance of, for example, ActionSA in last year’s municipal election.

Another proposal in the draft policy is the one about how people who have emigrated from South Africa could be encouraged to return to this country.

As is standard with many proposals from the government, a lofty ideal is announced with little detail about how it will be achieved. The word ‘emigrant’ is found only three times in the entire proposed policy. The policy says it will encourage South Africans who have left to return in the following way: ‘This national strategy for skills retention will include a section on incentives to come back on a temporary or permanent basis to South Africa and to impart skills and experience in a range of ways, targeting countries of 100 destination of South African highly skilled workers or workers who have been educated and trained in South Africa. This plan can include seasonal programmes, volunteering, lecturing, reintegration with promotion, etc…’

The Department of Labour also envisages that it will be some sort of labour ‘help centre’ for South Africans working abroad, working with the Department of International Relations and Co-operation as well as the Department of Health.

Emigrants unlikely to return

However it is likely that very few South Africans who are now settled abroad would be looking to return to this country. The government can implement as many plans as it likes and can even have a detailed outline on how it will attract South Africans to return (unlike the few wishy-washy  sentences from above), but until there are fundamental changes in how this country is run, few South African expats will want to return.

Although it is hard to get accurate numbers of how many South Africans have left this country, anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate the numbers are high, with many people looking to emigrate soon.

Consider the recent Test cricket series between the Proteas and New Zealand.  Of the eleven players that the Black Caps fielded, Neil Wagner and Devon Conway are both originally from Gauteng. (A third Southern African, Colin de Grandhomme, who was born in Harare, also played for the Kiwis).

Wagner and Conway aren’t the only two South Africans who have played cricket for New Zealand, Kruger van Wyk and BJ Watling both turned out as wicketkeepers for the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud, while Glenn Phillips and Colin Munro have played white-ball international cricket for them. And this is before we even consider the South African-born Marnus Labuschagne and Michael Neser, who play for Australia, and the literally dozens of South Africans who have turned out for England.

The experience of Wagner and Conway, and the others mentioned above, is probably an example of the broader experience of many South Africans who choose to try make a new life abroad. Both have said that they moved to New Zealand for opportunities that were simply not available to them in this country, with issues such as safety or long-term security also being offered as reasons by players who have left this country.

Very few of these players are likely to return to South Africa, whether to continue playing, take up coaching, or simply to settle here as they get older.

Lack of opportunities

Current policies will continue to restrict opportunities for South Africans and encourage those who have the means to emigrate to do so. And while there is sometimes some crass racial nationalist crowing over those who leave (by those who think only whites emigrate) the fact of the matter is that the brain drain is a serious matter with serious knock-on effects, and it will continue to retard South Africa’s development.

While South Africa has race-based laws and policies which restrict rather than encourage economic growth, it will continue to be a country where those with skills and money may want to leave. And looking past the issue of tepid economic growth, many South Africans simply do not feel safe, and are willing to give up the familiarity of a place they know for a strange country, simply for physical safety. South Africa is a country with a very high murder rate. It is unsurprising that this is one of the key factors when people leave for other corners of the world.

Finally, can any South African, no matter their racial or other background, or level of income, say that the lives of their children will be better than theirs? On current evidence the answer is no.

Until these things change, any attempts to attract skilled South Africans who have emigrated will be pointless.

And while some will claim that it is mainly white South Africans who are leaving, and ‘good riddance,’ this is simply not the case. The day is not far off when a Khumalo or a Jantjes is turning out for a New Zealand national sports team.

[Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/tunnel-man-guy-walking-dark-698518/]

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.