The scatterlings and swallows of South Africa

William Saunderson-Meyer on the ANC govt's baffling indifference to emigration & hostility to immigration


For all its blatant failures and shortcomings, Africa has an unrivalled ability to enchant. It grabs the heart hard and doesn’t let go.

Out of Africa author Karen Blixen was devastated when she had to return to her native Denmark after 17 hard but blissful years in Kenya. Reminders of happier times on her farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills were so wounding that she couldn’t bring herself to open the shipping cases of memories for 20 years. 

Perhaps because Africa is humankind’s primal home, to leave the continent permanently is heart wrenching and gut churning. To this day, it exerts an attraction on many otherwise sane citizens of the developed nations, who would at a shot abandon comfortable, safe lives to establish themselves in far riskier circumstances on African shores, were they permitted.

South Africa, particularly, has economically benefited enormously from emigration, both African and European. Politically, not so much — black South Africans know all about the downside of white settlement. Or for that matter, ask the Khoisan, who were dispossessed by both European settlers and black African imperialists.

But in the 21st century, immigration to, or protracted sojourn in, South Africa should not to be feared. These are not the first stages of a colonial takeover, with the possible baffling exception of the commercial beachhead established in every city, town and dorp over the past decade by Chinese immigrants running small general dealers.

Migration, as the research repeatedly and unanimously shows, is a booster jab against economic anaemia. That’s not a fact that South Africans are eager to embrace.

Nor, for that matter, do the former colonial nations want to. In one of those delightful inversions of the flow of history, the expansionist European nations whose human flotsam and jetsam once boosted economic growth in the Americas, Australasia and Africa, are struggling to grapple with the modern boomerang. They need to attract bright, adventurous and risk-taking foreigners to grow their economies, but it comes with the cost of social disruption and having to come to terms with “otherness”.

The African National Congress government pays lip service to the concept that inward flows of human and financial investment are beneficial. That's not their practise. Officialdom places every obstacle possible before those who seek to come here to contribute to the country’s development.

Although we should welcome anyone who can read, ‘rite and reason — three qualities that we have a dearth of — there’s actually an official Critical Skills List that is meant to facilitate the speedy entry, for work or permanent residence, of desperately needed talents. The most recent CSL, issued in February and laboriously compiled during a flat-footed two-year process, is hopeless.

We will, theoretically, put out the welcome mat to chefs, advertising experts and digital artists but we apparently don’t need or want medical specialists, nor electrical, mechanical, metallurgical, mining and civil engineers. Nor are artisanal or technician skills required. All of which are occupations that appeared on the old, 2014, list but have now been discarded.

Even if you meet the state’s criteria, it’s almost impossible to get government agencies to follow their own regulations. As mentioned in an earlier Jaundiced Eye column, a renowned Swiss orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Markus Michel, was in 2013 allowed to set up home in Cape Town on an “exceptional skills” visa.

After struggling in vain to get the Health Professions Council to register him so that he could exercise these exceptional skills to local benefit, he had to take the matter to the High Court. Judge David Makhoba in December 2020 not only ruled in favour of Michel but also handed down a punitive costs order against the HPCSA but not many people have the stomach or deep pockets required for a nine year battle.

It’s much the same thing with overseas project investment, which President Cyril Ramaphosa is supposedly moving heaven and earth to attract. In theory, South Africa “is open for business” as government ministers love to proclaim — this phrase is the theme of a massive billboard campaign just launched, aptly, in another investment sinkhole, Zimbabwe — but in real life, the bureaucrats are again damagingly obstructive. 

Recently I met a French couple who have invested about R15m in developing a small local farm that they bought in 2013. They are also setting up a pharmaceutical project in South Africa that will bring in around R400m in initial foreign investment and will export to the European Union.

Despite every effort, they cannot get Home Affairs to grant anything better than three-month tourist visas. That means they are in a perpetual shuttle between South Africa and France — they have to return to their home country for visa renewal — at great cost and inconvenience.

Their persistence baffles business logic. There are other African countries, including presumably newly business-friendly Zimbabwe, which would embrace their investments and do everything possible to facilitate the process But it’s South Africa that holds their hearts, so they persist. For now.

As difficult as we make it for new immigrants — we torch the spaza shops of Somalians in Cape Town and murder Zimbabwean truck drivers on the N3 between Durban and the Witwatersrand — the ANC is also sublimely indifferent to retaining the skills and financial assets of South Africans themselves.

In response to the political advantages accruing to the ANC through cadre employment and nepotism, black economic empowerment and restorative affirmative action have moved far beyond their initial, admirable intentions. In the past decade or so, minority groups have increasingly and systematically been excluded from participation in the economic pie-making process. 

The result has been a substantial increase in emigration by Indians, whites and coloureds, as well as by black South Africans who can relatively easily find hard currency jobs in advanced economies. Since South Africa does not keep definitive statistics on emigration, it’s difficult to pin down the numbers, especially since the assets of the younger emigrants are in their craniums, not in bank accounts that get emptied out and closed down.

However, a recent BusinessLIVE analysis hints at the scale of the exodus. 

American Dream, which specialises in helping South Africans settle in the United States through the EB-5 investment visa programme, says it has seen major growth since it set up business four years ago. Despite the programme’s minimum investment increasing from US$500,000 to US$900,000 in 2019, it has been processing around 100 EB-5 investors a year. It is already clear that 2021 will surpass that figure, with a threefold increase in inquiries since the Covid pandemic struck.

American Dream’s CEO, Stuart Ferguson, says many of those leaving are farmers, concerned over expropriation without compensation. “We have a lot of second- and third-generation farmers who have ceased capitalisation of their farms, are taking money offshore and considering alternatives for their families. These are multiple family units. Typically it's grandparents, parents and children and they are doing multiple applications to maintain the family unit.”

The Induku Group, also US-focused, is currently processing the exit of around 160 professionals. Many are in the medical sector, leery of the planned National Health Insurance. Others are lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs who are so desperate that they are willing to take entry-level jobs — hotel reception, line chefs, courier deliveries, and packing containers — to get that coveted green card.

Another, Beaver Immigration, has since 2019 seen an 18% annual growth in the number of South Africans admitted to Canada as permanent residents. In the past five years, according to Canadian official statistics, 25,000 South Africans made that country their home. And since 2019, the numbers have increased by more man two-thirds.

There is a contra-flow, the Homecoming Revolution somewhat desperately and unconvincingly tries to reassure us. Its head, Faye Tessendorf, says British statistics show a net decline of 26,000 South Africans living in the UK from 255,000 at the end of 2019. 

She cites no evidence that they are back here, except, she told BusinessLIVE, that Homecoming Revolution had observed a 30%-45% uptick in ‘returning home’ conversations among South Africans living abroad. Also, “anecdotal evidence suggests that the Covid lockdown exacerbated homesickness among expats abroad”.

Like Karen Blixen, these expats are dealing with the loss of a loved land. It hurts and they grieve. But as the statistical evidence indicates, it’s most unlikely that their shipping cases will be heading back to the southern tip of Africa any time soon.

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