“I love this country and I wouldn’t dream of ever leaving it,” says Stefan van Zyl, a first-year BCom student. “There’s so much diversity and culture in South Africa that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Why leave?”

In 2009, a study by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) reported that nearly a quarter of the white population had left the country since 1995. In addition to that, the number of black, Indian and coloured South Africans emigrating from the country had doubled between 1995 and 2009. It is now 18 years since South Africa became a democracy, yet it seems that we are still losing citizens to other parts of the world. Is the South African population slowly becoming disenchanted with its own country? Perdeby investigates.

Emigration has been a fiercely debated topic for many years. Since 2000, South Africa has been accused of having a steady “brain drain” – young, skilled citizens leave the country in great numbers every year in pursuit of better opportunities or a better quality of life in other countries. The debate is: are those who emigrate justified in doing so if they’re not satisfied with the situation in their country, or do they have a duty as South Africans to stay and help to fix whatever problems are causing them to consider leaving?

The biggest motivation for emigration is crime. South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world and, just years ago, xenophobic attacks in our country caused international concern. Most recently, white farmers have been victims of the high number of race murders that have been taking place in the last few years. Andrew Loots, a second-year geology student, says that he plans to leave the country once he has finished his degree. “[Members of] my family have been victims of crime four times in the last three years. Half of my extended family is already in New Zealand and I plan to join them as soon as I finish studying.” Loots acknowledges that the government is doing a good job of rehabilitating the country, but not a fast enough one. “It’s just not safe yet and I cannot wait any longer.”

Another factor that has convinced many young, qualified South Africans (especially white South Africans) to leave the country is affirmative action. Loots says that this too is reason enough for him leave the country. “Fighting for a job in this country is just too difficult,” he explains. “I want to live somewhere where my qualifications speak for themselves and nothing else matters.”

It is true that finding employment in other countries is easier because affirmative action is not an issue, but it can also be difficult in other ways, considering that most first-world countries are still sceptical of South African qualifications because of our comparatively lower standard of education. With the exception of doctors, engineers and scientists, many experience finding employment overseas as challenging. Countries that most people prefer emigrating to, like Canada, the US and Australia, have stringent migrant labour policies and only outsource employees when the skill level of the migrant employee is higher than what is already available in that country. In order to secure a steady, well-paying job overseas, one needs to accumulate an unusually high level of qualifications and experience in their home country first. This process can take years and at the end of it all it is usually simpler to stay than to emigrate.

Curiously, the South African government does not keep a regular record of the amount South African citizens leaving the country. Independent research groups conduct most studies and reports on emigration. “I don’t dispute that people have left – I just dispute the high figures. Nothing indicates that they’ve all emigrated permanently,” Martine Shaffer, Director of the Homecoming Revolution (an organisation aimed at helping returnees assimilate back into the country), says in response to the statistics published by the SAIRR. Perhaps the government is still holding on to the hope that the emigrants will one day return to South Africa. Companies in crisis like Eskom have often tried to entice engineers who have emigrated to return to South Africa. According to James-Brent Styan in an article entitled “Hundreds of engineers quit SA”, in 2008, Eskom had a vacant post for an engineer that paid above R100 000 a month, which is more than twice the amount that emigrant engineers earn overseas.

Despite the many reasons that South Africans have given for emigrating, there’s still a reassuring number of citizens willing to stay. George Skhosana, a final-year marketing student, says that whatever issues this country has are our responsibility to fix. “We’ve come such a long way, but there’s still more that we can do. I’m not going to abandon my country when it needs me the most just to live like a foreigner somewhere else.” He adds that South Africans who emigrate have “given up” on their motherland and are only making matters worse by taking their skills and education to countries that have given them nothing. “This country raised us all, educated us and equipped us with talents that will feed us for the rest of our lives. Leaving is simply ungrateful,” he says

When South Africa was liberated all those years ago, we were promised freedom, diversity and a reconciled nation that we could all be proud of. Today, one needs only to open up a newspaper to know the problems that our country is facing. Political tension, poverty, employment inequity and crime – are these reasons to leave or reasons to stay?

Photo: Eleanor Harding

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