Fleeing from South Africa

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Johnson

Fourteen years after apartheid, why are the best and the brightest leaving Africa's most successful state?

No one should be surprised to read that Zimbabwe has suffered massive emigration in recent years, especially among its white minority. But much less expected is the fact that next-door South Africa, the continent's wealthiest and most developed country, is suffering a brain drain of its own (if on a smaller scale).

The South African government doesn't keep reliable emigration statistics. But even as the global financial crisis has caused emigration from most other countries to slow, a number of recent independent studies show that mass departures from South Africa are ongoing and are sapping the nation of its skilled and best-educated young citizens. The most dramatic figures can be found among South African whites, who are leaving at a pace consistent with the advent of "widespread disease, mass natural disasters or large-scale civil conflict," according to a report by the South African Institute on Race Relations. Some 800,000 out of a total white population of 4 million have left since 1995, by one count. But they're hardly alone. Blacks, coloreds (as people of mixed race are known in South Africa) and Indians are also expressing the desire to leave. In the last 12 years, the number of blacks graduating in South Africa with advanced degrees has grown from 361,000 to 1.4 million a year. But in that time the number of those expressing high hopes to emigrate has doubled.

This wasn't supposed to happen. In many ways, the new South Africa has lived up to its promise of racial harmony and equitable development; its enlightened Constitution, progressive economic policies, and wealth of human and natural resources have all kept it relatively stable since apartheid was swept away in 1994. But that stability could be jeopardized if its human capital keeps leaving at the current rate. South Africa has undergone massive swings in emigration for decades, including since the end of white rule. The shifts can be linked to changes in political stability and economic opportunity, as well as less worrisome factors like simple wanderlust. And all these same factors are at work now, but they've been accentuated by a violent crime epidemic, serious political upheaval and economic globalization. A poll conducted last May among 600 people of different races, ages and genders found that 20 percent were planning to leave the country. "We are now seeing a new tipping point for an exodus," warned another report from Future Fact, a polling agency. "But this time [it's] across-the-board in terms of race."

The primary driver for emigration among all groups, but especially whites, who still retain the majority of South Africa's wealth, is fear of crime. With more than 50 killings a day, South Africa has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. The same goes for rape--ranking the country alongside conflict zones such as Sierra Leone, Colombia and Afghanistan. Future Fact polling indicates that more than 95 percent of those eager to leave South Africa rate violent crime as the single most important factor affecting their thinking. Lynette Chen, the ethnic-Chinese CEO of Nepad Business Group, is the only member of her family left in South Africa. Her parents departed in 2002 after being carjacked--twice. Her brother, also a victim of crime, followed suit shortly thereafter. "They're always getting homesick," she says. "But they won't come back unless the crime is reduced."

Another largely unnoticed problem is the growing number of attacks on South Africa's white farmers. As in neighboring Zimbabwe, some of the attacks appear to be racially motivated. Others seem simply opportunistic, but the result is that white farmers' numbers continue to decrease, leading to fears that despite the government's good intentions, a Zimbabwe-style crisis--where the flight of skilled farmers led to an agricultural collapse--is possible here too. …