Challenges and opportunities in the latest brain drain

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The “brain drain” is not a new concept for South Africa, with hordes of professionals having left the country in the early 2000’s, and a fresh batch looking for greener pastures at the moment. This provides both opportunities and challenges for individuals and the country as a whole.

The Department of Home Affairs’ White Paper on International Migration states that for every professional immigrating to South Africa, eight professionals are emigrating. Between 1989 and 2003, over 120,000 of the 520,000 mainly white emigrants had professional qualifications (one in four) and South Africa lost 7% of its total stock of professionals.

According to Johannes Wessels, director of entrepreneurial non-profit The Enterprise Observatory of South Africa (Eosa), taking the findings of the white paper into consideration, we can conservatively calculate that at least 400,000 professionals have left South Africa in the past few years – but this wave of emigration has seen representatives of all race groups moving.

“Considering that the 1990 to 2003 emigration of skills continued despite the return of stabilisation under Mandela and Mbeki, one can easily state that at least a similar number of white professional people have left between 2004 and 2018 – amounting to at least a quarter million of white professionals. However, the last phase of the Zuma catastrophe as well as the embrace by the ANC of expropriation without compensation have led to an acceleration of skilled emigration: this time from all race groups,” Wessels says.

“At professional level, they packed their bags and headed to the emigration counter with highly skilled blacks now outnumbering their white counterparts, bound in solidarity by a deep non-racial gatvolheid in the slide into corruption, lawlessness, dismal public services and the undermining of property rights.”

While the previous waves of emigration were somewhat mitigated by immigrants filling in the gaps, South Africa has dropped as a desirable destination for skilled individuals from other countries. A recently-released HSBC report put us third-bottom in a list of 31 countries – South Africa’s worst performance on the HSBC Expat Report since its inception in 2013.

Singapore is now the most popular destination for people wanting to work abroad. Not for the number of movers, but for the quality of life. New Zealand and Germany were the next-favourite destinations, with Canada and Bahrain completing the top five. Japan and Brazil were the only two countries to be rated worse than South Africa.

There are four metrics where South Africa performed particularly poorly, with safety topping the list as our safety rating was the worst of all 31 countries. Work-life balance in South Africa was also highlighted as the country has been identified as the second-worst place for “closeness to your partner”. Economic confidence (30th) and the political situation (29th) also helped lower our ranking.

Unfortunately, this all means that we have a shrinking percentage of high income households, as well as fewer people in high personal tax brackets as contributors to SARS. What it also means is that skilled individuals will be in ever-greater demand, potentially opening up new opportunities for income growth.

It also opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs who can help fill in the skills gaps, potentially making the “gig economy” a standard way of doing things in South Africa. And while the challenges that are leading to people leaving will take time and effort to resolve, there is still much to recommend the 5th most Instagrammed country in the world.