Expats come home – but we need more. South Africa calls…

unnamedBy Paul Pereira

Since 1994, South Africa has suffered a net loss of highly skilled people to emigration, mainly to English-speaking countries across the globe, while attracting large numbers of often unskilled immigrants from neighbouring SA Development Community (SADC) countries. But South Africa’s expats are increasingly returning home.

From the declaration of a Republic in 1961, the Department of Home Affairs and its predecessors recorded net gains of what might be called “airport immigrants” – the number of foreigners choosing to settle here permanently minus the number of South Africans leaving for good.

The only exceptions to net gains were short-lived ones that coincided with civil disturbance starting in Soweto in 1976, and then again with the imposition of a national state of emergency in 1986. Until the coming of democracy, that is. From 1994 onward, government reported a net loss of people through airports for every year until 2004, when it suddenly stopped reporting on this embarrassment.

By 2010 the research consultancy Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies said that there were up to 700 000 South Africans living abroad, with the UK as preferred destination, followed by Australia and then the US. The following year had the UK government estimate that country having 192 000 people who had been born in SA, up from 132 000 a decade earlier.

The effect back home was significant. An analysis released by Adcorp this month suggests that this net loss of skilled South Africans was accompanied by a stable need for their services, pushing up salaries for those staying behind. Adcorp points to “a consistent shortage of high-skilled workers amounting to around 829 000 vacancies” this decade, resulting in almost no unemployment among South Africans of requisite high skill.

In real terms, their average wages increased from R113 000 a year in 1997 to R424 000 by last year. But this hasn’t been a consistently upward trend, and their earnings have fallen by 23% since the 2008 start of the global financial crisis. How so?

It’s because, says Adcorp labour economist Loane Sharpe, of 359 000 skilled South Africans finding the grass to be just as brown abroad, returning home, and so pushing down high-end wages . These returnees represent 18% of the country’s current management pool, and 12% of all graduates. Straightened global working opportunities may explain the World Bank’s World Competitiveness Report noting SA’s ability to retain skills moving up from 80th to 47th place.

The easy economic absorption of returnees is helped by the country’s self-inflicted injury of strict immigration measures of 2002 being tightened again in 2008 and 2010.

Returning Prodigals bring new insight and deep experience with them, but they are not alone. They join newcomers at the spectrum’s other end: immigrants from neighbouring states attracted to a country many of whose own people are virtually unemployable and with a slowly ageing population.

Often illegal and thus living in the shadows, estimates of their numbers vary from the Census 2011 count of 1.6 million (3.2% of the population) to claims of a less likely six million. The World Bank reckons South Africa attracted almost 1.9 million immigrants in this century’s first decade, a number that increased by 82% from 2000 to 2010.          

First published in The Citizen, 24 January 2014.